Swing Time by Zadie Smith

71YzYD54WTLSwing Time. Zadie Smith. Copyright November 2016. Hamish Hamilton.

Two little girls dream about being dancers but only one has talent. The other is full of ideas on music, film and the people around her. Their friendship, often antagonistic, twists into something else entirely as they grow up and move in opposite directions. The unnamed narrator takes us from the housing estates in London to a village in West Africa and into the sphere of an international pop star.

White Teeth blew me away and the promise of a novel by the same author on dance really excited me so I went into this book ready to fall in love. This may have contributed to why I was so disappointed by Swing Time. Zadie Smith, again, has created memorable and distinct characters but I didn’t like any of them. I was also disappointed that dance itself didn’t actually feature much in the story, only the industry around it.

The narrative was like listening to someone’s life story and interesting career (to them) and holidays and childhood- nothing touched me. This seemed to mimic the protagonist’s lack of true passion to anything in her life, except for her childhood friend Tracy. I felt like I would have been more interested following any of the other characters stories who actually seemed to have some sort of purpose- her mother, Aimee or Tracy herself.

“A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.”

I’ve seen many people say that this is Zadie Smith’s best book yet. Swing Time has also made the Man Booker longlist for 2017. However, like with the stories of Alice Munro, I just didn’t connect with this book. I will, however, be reading another Zadie Smith because White Teeth is still one of the best books I have read and I highly recommend it if you are looking for a good place to start.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré

the_spy_who_came_in_from_the_cold_coverThe Spy who came in from the Cold. John Le Carré. Copyright 1963. Penguin 2010.

I am a huge fan of the George Smiley radio plays on the BBC but haven’t often sat down to read one of the original books. This classic was a good choice to start with and made me appreciate Le Carré is not only a brilliant storyteller but also an excellent writer.

The Spy Who came in from the Cold is a classic spy novel from 1963 set in the midst of the Cold War. Alec Leamas has just lost his entire network in Berlin due to his opposite in East Germany, Hans-Dieter Mundt. Back in disgrace at “the Circus” (the British intelligence service) the chief “Control” asks him to do one last mission; to take Mundt down for good.

I appreciated Alec Leamas as a character much more than in the radio plays now that I can read his voice unfiltered. His ability to antagonise every smooth operator he comes across was hilarious but I also liked the streak of empathy that he hadn’t managed to lose. The other characters also remained with me well after I had finished the book- Mundt, who sent chills down my spine, the characters in the library, and my favourite character Fiedler, a soft spoken and vastly intelligent communist under Mundt.

This is an exceptional book. It is written so cold and sparse and yet it is incredibly emotive. It has the kind of dialogue that I want to go back and read over and over, to hunt for hidden motivations and see what I missed. Part of the magic of this book is many hints throughout that something is not quite right and Leamas is right there with us, unable to see the whole picture.

“Do you really feel that?” Control enquired politely. And then, having looked at Leamas thoughtfully for a moment, he observed: “Yes, I really think you do. But you musn’t feel you have to say it. I mean, in our world we pass so quickly out of the register of hate or love – like certain sounds a dog can’t hear. All that’t left in the end is a kind of nausea; you never want to cause suffering again.”

I recommend this book both for being a thrilling story and for the message it conveys that at the time caused waves. John Le Carré was the pen-name of a man who actually worked as a British Intelligence Officer and his George Smiley series challenged the notion that British espionage was morally superior to any other country. Many writers have commented on how atmospheric this book is but my favourite quote is one by J.B. Priestley: “Superbly constructed, with an atmosphere of chilly hell.” 

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

americanah-300x0Americanah. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Copyright 2013. HarperCollins 2014

I’ve been making eyes at Half of a Yellow Sun for a while now but for some reason Americanah was the first book by Adichie I actually read. I definitely didn’t regret it. Americanah is a great sprawling book that challenges the complex issues of race and identity and yet also manages to tell a captivating story.

Ifemelu and Obinze grow up in military ruled Nigeria and their love seems to be an unbreakable thing. However as one heads to America and gets labelled “Black” for the first time and the other ends up as an illegal immigrant in the UK after being denied entry into the U.S, we watch them break apart and after 15 years move slowly back together again.

The book is written from the perspective of Ifemelu and Obinze and features a large cast of memorable characters. The narrative jumps back and forth between both characters first returning to a now democratic Nigeria, their days at university and their life in the West.

My favourite part of this book was definitely Ifemelu’s blog and her chatty articles on race, class, misogyny and colourism. I loved her writing style and the fictional blog is one I would follow myself.

“If you’re telling a non-black person about something racist that happened to you, make sure you are not bitter. Don’t complain. Be forgiving. If possible, make it funny. Most of all, do not be angry. Black people are not supposed to be angry about racism. Otherwise you get no sympathy. This applies only for white liberals, by the way. Don’t even bother telling a white conservative about anything racist that happened to you. Because the conservative will tell you that YOU are the real racist and your mouth will hang open in confusion.”

 

The love story between Ifemelu and Obinze isn’t just a backdrop for the themes or the plot but the driving heart of the book. I wasn’t unmoved at their first meeting or the way they fit together. They didn’t win me over completely as individuals. Their feelings of superiority over the other characters (something they occasionally realise themselves) and Obinze’s “gentle disdain” for the wife he cheats on were things I couldn’t ignore but as a love story they worked.

I highly recommend this book not only as an engaging piece of fiction but as a masterful look at immigration, the diaspora and the intricacies of race that we often find we cannot put into words ourselves. I found myself smiling over so many characters in this book who represented people I have met in real life.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

coverThe Power. Naomi Alderman. Copyright 2016. Penguin 2017.

I was well aware of this book before I started reading. When The Power won the Bailey’s Prize for 2017 Booktube seemed to be split on whether it deserved the winning spot or not. The main criticism I kept coming across was the language is too simple for this to win a major literary prize. I myself believe that this novel definitely deserved the win. It is one of the most exciting books I have read in a long time.

The Power starts with a simple yet catastrophic idea. What if young girls suddenly had a power that could inflict terrible pain? What if they could wake it up in older women?

At first we see the male characters see the power of the teenage girls and think how can I exploit this? For money or for violence but gradually gradually we see the power shift and at first I felt so excited watching it. Vindicated. We see that what we consider normal- women feeling unease and fear around huge groups of men, women being abused physically or sexually by men, women being casually humiliated or demeaned at work, at home, on the streets- all of this was suddenly shifting to the other side. Alderman doesn’t just stop there, however, and what was first thrilling turns ghastly.

The scope of this book is fascinating! As the power dynamics from places as diverse as the boardroom in New England, to the underbelly of London, to the kingdom of Saudi, to streets of Delhi start to shift. Alderman illustrates not just big changes but the small subtle ones too, like between two news anchors.

Well now, Kristen, if a power like this existed, maybe we bred it out deliberately, maybe we didn’t want it around. You’d tell me if you could do something like that, wouldn’t you, Kristen? Well, you know, Tom, maybe I’d want to keep a thing like that to myself. The news’ anchors eyes meet. Something unspoken passes between them. And now the weather on the ones.

The story switches from the Point of View of four main characters- a girl in England, a young man in Nigeria, a woman in New England and a girl who wants to set the world on fire. The language is simple but emotionally effective and the story is exciting and complex.

This isn’t just a look at a different world. Naomi is holding up a mirror to our world now. And what the mirror shows will horrify you.

 

 

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

81fKXcKlJMLWolf Hall, Hilary Mantel, Copyright 2009.  Fourth Estate 2010

I’ve come to this book very late! Despite being a connoisseur of Tudor novels it has taken me a long time to read Wolf Hall. By winning the Man Booker prize and being set in a period I am fascinated with I was almost afraid to read it.

Thomas Cromwell is a rather unlikely hero, being both hated in his time and coming off rather unsympathetically in the various fictional adaptations he has connived through. As lawyer and chief minister to Henry VIII he is best known as aiding the rise and downfall of Anne Boleyn and the reformation of the English church. In Wolf Hall we see Thomas Cromwell, a boy from a violent home in Putney, rising up to take a starring role in court through a formidable intelligence and a face “like a murderer.”

The first 100 pages were intriguing but slow work for me. I found Mantel’s excessive use of “He” hard to get used to. The last 500 had me with my face glued to the pages. Despite seeing these particular events in about five Philippa Gregory books, a tv show (The Tudors), a play at The Globe (Anne Boleyn), primary school history and a history book by Antonia Frasier, it all felt new and exciting to me. The moment it was revealed why the novel is called Wolf Hall sent chills down my spine.

I love the detail; how Cromwell thinks like a lawyer (when he hears gossip he thinks Witnesses? Dates?), like a silk merchant, like a street brawler. The way that the Cardinal and Norfolk and the King look at him from tolerant bemusement to horror and disgust like – How did this boy from Putney manage to raise himself to our level? Where did he come from? what is he?

Cardinal Wolsey especially is stamped across this book and I particularly like the relationship between he and Cromwell. The playful way he asks Cromwell to price everything he wears.

He is about to say, the cardinal taught me everything, but Chapuys talks over him. “When the cardinal came to a closed door he would flatter it- oh beautiful yielding door! Then he would try tricking it open. And you are just the same, just the same.” He pours himself some of the duke’s present. “But in the last resort you just kick it in.”

Mantel made me care about Cromwell’s houshold- the sisters, wives, nephews. The usual stars of history, those at court, circle around in a wider sphere. By putting “the king” at a distance and placing emphasis more on his subordinates Mantel makes the past seem more immediate and relatable. Above all she made me love Cromwell himself. He is a fascinating character, not only intelligent and ruthless but also full of compassion. I can’t wait to see what he will do in Bring Up the Bodies, despite knowing how it will all end I badly want to see the journey Mantel will take us to get there.

 

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

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Great Expectations, Charles Dickens. First Published 1860-61. Penguin Red Classic 2006.

I consider myself lucky I was able to come to this book unspoilt by the plot. Our Christmas telly is so saturated with Dickens that I know Oliver Twist and Bleak House (the 2005 BBC adaption is brilliant) inside out. I have done my best not to see the plot of Great Expectations especially when the film came out and so all I really knew of the book was of the iconic Miss Havisham still wearing the old finery of her wedding clothes and an orphan called Pip.

Pip, grudgingly brought up by his sister, is destined for the life of a blacksmith but dreams of being a gentleman. His fortunes suddenly change when he encounters a convict called Magwitch in a foggy graveyard and is sent for by the mysterious Miss Havisham.

Despite my efforts to not see the plot of Great Expectations; it was not the plot that wowed me in this classic but the writing. The plot itself was gothic and melodramatic but neither impressed me or left me cold. What really made this book stand out was Dickens’s ability to bring his enormous cast of characters to life and his talent as a dry comic. I wasn’t expecting how funny this book would be or how often I would be smiling through it.

“Oh!” she said. “Did you wish to see Miss Havisham?”

“If Miss Havisham wished to see me,” returned Mr. Pumblechook discomfited.

“Ah!” said the girl, “but you see she don’t.”

I also loved reading the colourful descriptions of characters, like the lawyer Mr Jaggers “he seemed to bully his very sandwich as he ate it,” to the beautiful and “heartless” Estelle. It only occurred to me after I had finished the novel how much British writers owe to Dickens as I saw shades of his characterisation reflected in other later works.

Reading Great Expectations hasn’t tempted me to see any visual adaptations because the plot wasn’t strong enough for that. Rather I now want to go back and read the works that I already know; Bleak House, Oliver Twist and Christmas Carol because from what I’ve read here no adaptation could possibly do Dickens justice as a writer.

 

 

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

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Audiobook. Pan Macmillan Publishers. 2013. Read by Morven Christie.

As soon as I read the blurb for this book I had to read it. The story is set in northern Iceland in 1829. Agnes Magnúsdóttir is condemned to death for her part in the murder of two men. She is sent to the home of district office Jón Jónsson, his wife and their two daughters to await the execution of her sentence.

The family are horrified to have a convicted murderer in their house and at first the only person to attempt to converse with Agnes is a young assistant priest, Tóti, who has been assigned to help Agnes repent her crimes before her execution.

This is an incredibly beautiful and dark story written in gorgeous prose. Australian author, Hannah Kent writes with haunting clarity of a land iced over with harsh winters and rich with literary sagas. I’m so glad I decided to listen to the audiobook as I cannot imagine a better narrator for this book than Morven Christie. Her voice is as cool and soothing as a glass of water and matches these bleak yet lovely lines perfectly.

“Now comes the darkening sky and a cold wind that passes right through you, as though you are not there, it passes through you as though it does not care whether you are alive or dead, for you will be gone and the wind will still be there…”

The story unfolds in layers as we see the same crime from a thousand different angles. We hear interpretations, guesses, pieces from the trial, gossip and we read the official letters as the execution approaches but what actually happened on the night Agnes committed a brutal murder? We start to see she is not only being punished for her crime but also for being a woman who is too clever and doesn’t care to hide it.

I have reviewed books on here that show the dark side of human nature. Well this shows the ugly side of the human psyche. What at first seems romantic, shows itself to be tragic and sordid. What seems villainous is small mindedness, greed and violence for the sake of violence. The questions Christie leaves us asking is; what is the difference between the truth and the perceived truth and how much can we really know another person?