The Little House by Kyoko Nakajima – Sunita Crowley Reviews

Who owns our history? Whose version are we to believe and is history written by the victors, the survivors or their descendants? Kyoko Nakajima, in her Naoki prize winning book The Little House, gives us pause for thought as we follow the life of Taki a maid in the service of the Harai family in Tokyo.

 

In this multi-layered beautifully crafted novel, she skilfully weaves together the story of the lives of a Japanese family during the second world war with a clandestine love affair seen through the eyes of Taki. tlh

On the back of her bestselling ‘Granny Taki’s Super Housework Book’ Taki’s publisher urges the retired housemaid to write about Tokyo in the old days. Taki however has other ideas and proceeds to document her own life story focusing on the most pivotal and arguably the most formative years of her life during her service with Mistress Tokiko. Aged 14,having arrived in Tokyo a year earlier from a rural village in northern Japan, Taki is immediately charmed by her 22 year old mistress, who treats her with the utmost respect. ‘The first words she uttered to me were, “Taki and Tokiko…our names are quite similar aren’t they?”’ The contentment, harmony and trust in their relationship continues as their life experiences evolve. Tokiko having been widowed after a very short and troubled first marriage, settles into her second marriage to the kinder and more compassionate Mr Harai.His promise to build a new Western style house with a red tile roof clinches the marriage proposal for Tokiko and it’s all that both Tokiko and Taki could’ve imagined. The only threat to Taki’s perfect life is the prospect of her own marriage which would take her away from her beloved mistress and the little house. Until that is the arrival of a young student, Mr Itakara. The year is 1938. As war begins to affect all of their lives, so does the presence of the talented manga artist Mr Itakara. Taki has a choice to make, one which reveals itself to be the driving force behind the story being told.

The author takes us back and forth between Taki’s narration of her past memories and the present day with Takeshi, her nephews son commenting on her recollections, mostly with incredulity. How could they possibly be celebrating in Tokyo whilst a massacre had taken place in Nanking! More often than not he vehemently disputed her recollections claiming that she was ‘going senile’.

Kyoko-Nakajima-683x1024
Author Kyoko-Nakajima

As we reach the final chapter of the book, desperate to find out the fate of the characters the tone of the book changes. Narrated by Takeshi the mystery of the fate of the characters morphs into piecing together the mysteries of the past and ultimately how what we believe to be true is coloured by evidence: evidence unearthed, evidence being presented as a truth and ultimately evidence deliberately buried and possibly never seen. For us the reader and with the benefit of hindsight, we know that there is only person presenting the truth, albeit cryptically.

Kyoko’s storytelling imagines what it was like to live through such momentous times, evoking a sense of naivety of the gravity of events only paying attention when it affected their lives. Until 1938 the war with China was perceived as an irritation getting in the way of Tokiko’s frivolousness and Master Hirai’s business. Kyoko expertly explores how the war gradually infiltrates the lives of affluent citizens in the capital city, their frustrations, concerns and discussions that were commonplace to try and understand the unfolding events.

On one level it could be read as a cautionary tale. Ordinary people can be led into war by those in power fuelled by propaganda and nationalism gradually seeping into daily life and discourse.

Propaganda infiltrates the lives of Taki and her mistress through articles in the Housewives Digest edited by Tokiko’s trusted friend. Nationalist fervour is in full force withthe introduction of Patriotic Services Day in 1939 and celebrations for the Empires 2600thAnniversary in 1940 including an Art Exhibition and an international concert. Who wouldn’twant to attend and be reminded of the eternal greatness of their nation as the world seems to be turning against them? The cancellation of the proposed 1940 Japan Olympics had after all taken them by surprise. As the war progresses, the ramifications of wounded pride coupled with the escalation and distortion of facts are hinted at. The impact on Tokiko’s son, Kyo, seems almost inevitable.

The refusal to interrogate what we are being told and establishing the facts for ourselves contribute to a complacency which ultimately history will judge us by. Indeed, the structure of the book, alternating between Taki’s recollections and Takeshi’s commentary is a tool to examine the conflict between those who lived through a significant and horrific world event and how descendants come to terms with the deeds of their forefathers.

Heart wrenching and tragic, this is a book for anyone interested in the psychology of war propaganda, how the events of the war affected the Japanese civilian population and the representation of a history, personal and national, that’s full of regrets. How do we piece together the mysteries of the past and ultimately who knows the truth? Who can we rely on to show us the truth and how will it manifest itself? It’s also a story about love in all its forms and loyalty. No plot spoilers here, but the revelation at the end of the novel is well worth the wait.

The Little House by Kyoko Nakajima – Sunita Crowley Reviews

Sunita Crowley Reviews Chilli Bean Paste – Yan Ge

Sibling rivalry, misogyny, a powerful matriarch in a small town in which indiscretions are overlooked are universal themes explored in Yan Ge’s award winning The Chilli Bean Paste Clan.

chillibeanTranslated by Nicky Harman, the tale centres around Shengqiang, the youngest of three siblings who has worked his way up from the factory floor and groomed to become managing director of the family business, the Chilli bean paste factory. In the eyes of society Shengqiang has a seemingly perfect life, a beautiful wife, daughter, a chauffeur driven top of the range car, nights out with his male friends where women attend to all their salacious desires and of course a mistress. He’s the envy of all men and ostensibly attractive to other women in Pingle town. But as preparations begin for his mothers 80th birthday celebrations and with the return of his older brother Zhiming, an internationally renowned Maths Professor, Shengqiang’s perfect world begins to unravel. Narrated by his daughter, who we learn is in a psychiatric hospital, his life is filled with resentments towards his siblings and inner conflict as he tries to live up to the expectations of his mother and deceased father and ensuring that he maintains his status as ‘top dog’ with an image of respectability.

Winner of the 2017 English PEN Translates award, for much of the book there’s little to like about the central character Shengqiang or indeed the misogynistic society which most of us vehemently rail against. I felt urge to hand out helpline phone numbers and #metoo placards. But we don’t always have to like characters in fiction for a story to be compelling enough that we invest our time wanting to find out how the story ends and what happens to the characters. That the story and characters are believable and resonate is enough to remind us that we live in a complex world in which the hard-fought rights and values we expect to be upheld and understood remains elusive to many, even in our own communities.

Yan Ge does however furnish us with backstory’s which enable the reader to understand the behaviours of some of the characters. The head of the Xue’s household is Shengqiang’s mother, a matriarch who at best can be seen to have her children’s interests at heart or at worst seen as interfering, manipulative and calculating. Having lived through and lost everything during the cultural revolution, her rise to power is built upon careful reading of society and its’ rules, rules she’s at pains to impart to her children. Feared and respected in equal measure her complex relationship with her youngest son Shengqiang is the driving force behind this story. Shengqiang’s inner most thoughts interspersed in italics throughout the book, when not ruminating about his siblings, rests on his mother, in his eyes often cruel but often wise. Forever covering up Shengqiang’s indiscretions, she’s fully aware that appearances matter.

In her foreword, Yan Ge gives us a glimpse of the spark that set her on the path to writing this novel and realities of novel writing. The honesty with which she recalls the writing process ‘I know for a fact that I had no idea what I was doing and .. called myself a fraud’ mirrors the honesty she brings to the characters she knows from her own life and experiences growing up in small ‘Pingle-like’ town in China.

In her own words, she was only able to write this book once she had left her home town ‘a place I loved but could never return to’ ‘In telling the story the pain and anger has faded, leaving only faint images of kindness and joy.’ The Chilli Bean Paste Clan

Translated by Nicky Harman
Published by Balestier Press 2018
276 pages
(Original published in 2013)

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Sunita Crowley Reviews Chilli Bean Paste – Yan Ge

My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite


Blood might be thicker than water, but it’s also a lot more difficult to scrub out of carpets. Just ask Korede, a hardworking Nigerian nurse. By day, she is a well-respected, dedicated carer. At night she is on standby as an enabler for her wrecking ball of a little sister, Ayoola, who has a habit of killing her boyfriends.

Ayoola stabs them and Korede bags them, and though Ayoola pleads self-defense, Korede realizes that she has become a serial killer’s one woman cleanup crew. Until Ayoola sets her sight on Korede’s dream man, Tade.

The conflict is at one point explicitly focused on Korede’s Choice between her murderous sister and the object of her unrequited affection. The premise works as long as you don’t overthink it. Nigeria has the death penalty, but at no point is Korede seriously worried that her sister might hang. Instead, she frets about the prospect of losing hunky Doctor Tade to her sister’s sharp knife blade. Leaving aside considerations of logistics and logic, since we are reading a satirical(ish) tale, not a full fledged psychological thriller, the flimsy characterization of both Ayoola and Tade put the story under strain.

To her credit, Braithwaite does solve the Tade side of the equation by stripping him of his Mr. Perfect aura by the time Korede takes a side. This is more than many authors manage once they’ve set their hearts on convincing us that the boring, self-involved, hunky Doc types of this world are irresistible. Unfortunately, Ayoola doesn’t come across as any more well-rounded of a character. This is a far bigger issue given that her relationship with Korede is what anchors the book.

For all the attention she gets for her overwhelming physical beauty, Ayoola has a serious charisma deficit. She is simply put too dull of a psychopath and, as we rush through the plot without getting any insight into when exactly she started killing and what triggers it, she remains a beautiful blank slate throughout. The fact that she is often infantilized does not help. It is a missed opportunity to explore in more depth the themes of female agency, rage and violence the story only touches on very lightly.

Where Braithwaite does show more ambition is the flashbacks to the girls’ family life. There is a marked improvement as we get to see how Korede began her lifelong role as her sister’s keeper and how the two girls support each other to survive their father’s violence. You get the feeling this is the book that could emerge from a couple of rewrites. The good news is My Sister, the Serial Killer has been optioned for screen, a medium that has a lot of potential to bring out the story’s strengths. In the hands of a charismatic actress, Ayoola’s blankness might yet become chilling and cool. This might not be a whodunnit, but it is a very brisk, often fun read. I support publishing novellas under the radar with the help of generous formatting. I am even happier to have easy access to books set in a global metropolis outside of Europe or the US, so fingers crossed for the cinematic version and the advent of a Lagos noir trend. If the cover of this book is any indication, it’s going to be a stunner.

What’s interesting to note among the hype for this novella is that the audiobook version is getting great reviews, even from readers who had issues with the choppy plot and did not quite buy into the story on the written page. Perhaps My Sister, the Serial Killer was destined to be seen or heard rather

Sofia Fara is a book blogger and member of The Books Without Borders Bookclub

240 pages and published by Double Day

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My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Brothers in Blood: Sunita Crowley Reviews

In his interview at the 2018 Asian Writers festival, the author Amer Anwar discussed how he devoured crime fiction but had yet to read one set within the Asian community.

Thus started his writing journey. Brothers in Blood his debut novel went on to receive the prestigious Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger Award under the title ‘Western Fringes,’ and recently featured on Radio 4’s Open Book as well as numerous Best Books lists for 2018 including The Guardian and The Times.


Set in contemporary Southall, we enter the world of Zaq recently released from prison and working in a dead end job in a builders yard. The quest that our protagonist is tasked with is to find Rita, the daughter of his employer Mr Brar who has run away. As the story unfolds Zaq learns that she’s being forced into an arranged marriage but the facts turn out to be more complicated than we or Zaq imagine. Accompanying him on his journey into the Asian criminal underworld is his childhood friend Jags.
Tension builds throughout the book as Zaq treads the line between the competing expectations laid upon him by Mr Brar, Rita’s thuggish brothers and his own desire for self-preservation and to protect those who he perceives as vulnerable. The threats of imprisonment through false accusations, fear for his own life, along with what is yet to be revealed about the characters keep us gripped right to the end. ‘Who can you trust?’ and ‘Who or what is around the corner?’ is the staple of any crime fiction and Brothers in Blood doesn’t disappoint.
Aside from the violence of the underworld that we’re drawn into, the relationship between Zaq and his friends, in particular Jags, is well observed portraying the unquestioning support between friends as if they were brothers. Cultural divides and the concept of honour are explored in the book in various forms. Rita who is Sikh is purported to have run away with a Muslim, a situation that has to be resolved with added urgency for fear of bringing shame to her family ‘of all the guys she could’ve picked to go out with, a Muslim would’ve been the very worst choice as far as her family were concerned. The reasons were historical…’ Zaq who is of Muslim heritage is of a sensibility for whom religion or politics is irrelevant. Jags his closest friend is Sikh. As with any book which portrays a specific culture in a particular light, there is the danger of stereotyping. Forced marriages in a patriarchal society is a trope that can be misused in storytelling, but Amer Anwar has shifted this narrative adding a nuance that reflects the complexity of individuals. Violent Asian gangs prowling the streets of London may also be a pleasing narrative for some but let’s remember, this is crime fiction and inevitably there has to be devious devilish criminal characters of Asian heritage for the story to proceed.

If anything Amer Anwar portrays Asian culture as complex as any other. There are those who break the rules and justify their dubious actions with equally dubious moral codes. There are those who are tender, kind and know when they see injustice and seek to do their utmost to defend what’s right. Of course there are individual characters with many if not all these traits reflecting that we’re all a bunch of contradictions.
Publishers in the past have been hesitant to embrace a book peppered with non-English phrases. I can understand that this may be a barrier to engaging with the book. However since the start of my school days in an East End Comprehensive we were encouraged to infer the meaning of unfamiliar words from context before rushing to a dictionary. Shakespeare for many of us felt like a different language. When Zaq is told by his yard manager that he’s been summoned to see the boss and Zaq asks why, we can surmise that the reply by the yard manager ‘Mehnu Kee putha?’ as he waves him away in a disinterested manner means ‘how do I know?’ But as is always the case, that view is coloured by the sensibilities of the reader. I as a British born Hindu-Punjabi who was never taught either Hindi or Punjabi but can understand the odd phrase, see it as a window into the world of a culture that is comfortable inhabiting two spheres, that of their own cultural heritage and the host country. As readers we don’t need to understand each and every word spoken by the characters. In fact books, just like films, can be written with different readers in mind. Children’s films invariably insert extras for accompanying adults to identify with. It’s not essential to the story but a nod to those with an added depth of knowledge.
Amer Anwar has set his novel in a place that he clearly knows well describing the streets of Southall and its surrounding areas with such detail that at times I wanted to reach for google maps and follow the characters on their journeys
Has this book changed my life? No. Do I identify with the misfortunes and violence that befalls the characters? No. I live a largely uneventful life free of crime. Do I understand the complexities of growing up in an Asian community in Britain? Yes. Does this book along with others such as ‘Sophia Khan is not Obliged’ signal a change in publishing and popular culture that acknowledges that there are universal stories that transcend culture? Yes. Just as the TV series ‘This Life’ in the 1990’s portrayed an Asian female who I could identify with, the current wave of British Asian fiction is set to do the same. Fiction in which Asian characters are portrayed in a non-stereotypical manner, in which being Asian isn’t the dominant theme and the plight of the immigrant isn’t the central theme but rather being a human with a life filled with everyday angst, grief, love and humour is ever more important. In an apparently increasingly polarised world, we need to focus on what we share. What better way to demonstrate our common humanity than through nuanced fiction.

Brothers in Blood maybe set to draw in a new readership that otherwise would bypass this genre. I for one am looking forward to the sequel.

Amer Anwar.
Could this be the beginning of a whole new genre of SouthAsian Crime fiction?

Published by Dialogue Books. 448 pages.

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When I Hit You – Meena Kandasamy – Tasha Mathur Reviews

Meena Kandasamy boldly addresses marital violence against women in her latest novel.meena

SINCE publishing just a year ago, Meena Kandasamy’s latest novel was quickly shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize 2018, Women’s Prize 2018 and longlisted for the Dylan Prize 2018. Set in southern India, When I Hit You has gained global attention as an honest account of domestic abuse in a country which unfortunately still shies away from addressing the problem.

Due to the taboo surrounding domestic abuse, statistics rarely offer an accurate picture of how widespread the issue is. However, according to a recent survey, 31% of married women have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional violence by their spouses in India.

While many women quietly endure this abuse, Kandasamy bravely spoke about her former abusive husband in an article for Outlook Magazine five years before publishing When I Hit You. And although the novel is considered a fictional piece, it’s hard to ignore the similarities between the female protagonist and Kandasamy – making the story a harrowing and realistic read.

The story follows an unnamed female writer who finds herself abused by her husband shortly after getting married. As a university professor, he twists ideologies to his advantage as he tells her,

“The problem is your feminism…that refuses to recognize that we are a couple…you cannot see me as anything other than a man and men as anything other than selfish scoundrels.”

Using intellectual arguments to manipulate her, the verbal abuse builds to actions such as deleting her Facebook and all of her emails. As he begins to wear her down, the physical violence increases as he starts to rape her when she attempts to defy him.

The full title of the novel is When I Hit You Or The Portrait Of The Writer As A Young Wife as Kandasamy emphasises the fact that this story is through the eyes of a writer. And it is writing that becomes this young wife’s biggest weapon.

Finding herself helplessly trapped in a tortuous situation she uses the power of words by writing letters to former lovers – even if it means deleting them before her husband comes home.

However, these small acts of defiance are rare as we see a strong, young feminist writer, slowly broken apart by her forceful husband. While most of the violence is alluded to and not explicitly described, Kandasamy writes of the emotional consequences of rape as the wife wonders, ‘How do I let another person know how it feels to be raped within marriage? Death is all I can think about when I lie there….A rape is a fight you did not win. You could not win.”

As if that wasn’t enough, she finds herself fighting alone as her parents encourage her to suffer through it rather than face the humiliation (perhaps more for her family than her) of divorce. Unfortunately, a response that is still far too common in India.

On the surface, this novel is a matter-of-fact story of a young wife beaten and raped by her husband. However, Kandasamy cleverly reflects on how that affects the woman’s reputation and the fact that even the strongest of women have endured the worst of their husband’s physical violence.

While this story is a difficult read it certainly carries a lot of hope. Essentially the book itself is the ultimate act of defiance as Kandasamy fearlessly uses her own writing to call out male abusers, the families who tell women to stay, the policeman who won’t do anything to help and many others. When I Hit You shows us that this story can happen to anyone but that there are ways of making it out the other side. And with the amount of attention it’s received, let’s hope this book is the start of open discussions around physical violence against women in India and encourages others to share their stories.

TASHA MATHUR

When I Hit You. Published by Atlantic Books – 256 pages.

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When I Hit You – Meena Kandasamy – Tasha Mathur Reviews

Dance of The Jakaranda: Peter Kimani GloBooks Reviews

A Kenyan writer  known as a poet, novelist, journalist & teacher, awarded the prestigious Jomo Kenyatta Prize for literature in 2011, Peter Kimani now brings out his latest novel, The Dance of the Jakaranda. Globooks journalist Tasha Mathur read the novel and was lucky enough to swap marginalia notes with the author 

Kimani explores Kenya’s colonial legacy within a love story, which brings the past back to life, in more ways than one Ia rich, multi-layered piece of work, not only are the characters and their stories captivating but the context of the colonial setting offers a window into a dark part of Africa’s history.

The Dance of The Jakaranda
Peter Kimani`s novel explores Kenyan`s colonial history

The  Dance of the Jakaranda surrounds the construction of the railroad from the inner Kenyan countryside to the trade port of Mombasa – a project that was started by the British in 1896. Enlisting the help of thousands of Indians from the former British Raj, the venture was eventually dubbed the ‘Lunatic Express’ due to the danger and large expense. Not only did many of the workers lose their lives during construction, an unspoken hierarchy formed amongst all involved with the British at the top, Indians in the middle and Africans considered at the bottom. Kimani cleverly illustrates this through a literal separation of Black and Asian workers within the carriages of a train, which ironically rides the rails that they have essentially built together.

The novel follows the lives of four main characters – the British colonialist in charge of the railroad construction Ian McDonald, the Christian preacher Reverend Turnbull, the unintentional Indian hero Babu and his musician grandson, Rajan. Each character’s story branches off from the winding train track, transforming into their own complex narratives yet each interweaving with each other. In an exclusive interview with Peter Kimani, he explained to GloBooks, his intentions behind the novel,

The basic premise is a love story, and a search for belonging. All the characters, without exception, are invested in one pursuit of happiness or other.”

It’s certainly true that all of the characters in The Dance of The Jakaranda have extremely rich backgrounds, which makes it easy to relate and sympathise with them all at some point in the novel. Despite the British oppressor Ian McDonald`s warring with the Indian worker Babu throughout the novel, it’s not so easy to pick sides as you would think, as Kimani develops each back story to such great detail that you can’t help but consider all perspectives.

PeterKimani
Author Peter Kimani

However, while there are many strong male characters in the novel, the female voices seem to be slightly lost. Although we hear of Sally, McDonald’s estranged wife and Fatimah, Babu’s industrious wife, it would have been interesting to hear more about these women – especially as much of the novel is driven through their love stories.

While many may know of the colonial history of Kenya, Kimani is able to offer us a very personal and human element of the struggles that were involved. And as he tells us, one of these was very much an aspect of belonging, particularly with Rajan, a brown man in a black world which had been had placed under white rule all his life.’ This is complicated even further, when the police can’t decide where to deport him, as his ancestral home of Punjab had been divided into two – India and Pakistan – yet another direct result of British colonial rule.

The Empire Windrush
The so called”Windrush Generation” were in fact migrants travelling from Jamaica to London in 1948 on the Empire Windrush ship.

The idea of deportation echoes the current state of the so called Windrush generation of Caribbeans , who arrived in Great Britain on the Empire Windrush ship in  1948 – enticed to work in Britain with the promise of a great quality of life, similar to the Indians who had been enticed to work in Kenya. In the novel, the new Kenyan government enforces a rule for each person to register themselves as citizens of the country, similar to those from the Windrush generation needing to prove their right to remain in a country that they’ve lived in most of their lives.

Once again, it questions the idea of identity and where does one truly belong. Kimani shares another reason for writing The Dance of The Jakaranda,

the novel is interested in re-telling the story of Kenya’s colonisation. In fact, I think mine is an act recovery; restoring the agency of Kenyans, and Africans at large, in telling their story, after centuries of subjugation.”

And the way Kimani tells this story is unique as the form of the novel jumps between two time frames throughout, both during and post colonial rule – showing the parallels between the subjugated and freed citizen. Kimani celebrates the oral tradition of African story telling, which often involved stories being passed from one to other until it’s hard to tell fact from fiction. While some may find it difficult to follow, it adds an atmosphere of buzzing activity to the story as we become privy to what smaller characters gossip about – with the narrator eventually confirming the truth of what actually happens.

Kimani ambitiously attempts to tackle many themes within the novel – colonialism, postcolonialism, racism, social hierarchy, love, lust, belonging, deception and many more. While some have worked more successfully than others, Kimani does illustrate each scene through his beautiful use of language from the snake like movements of the train chugging through the countryside (a motif that’s wonderfully illustrated on the front cover) to his descriptions of the flamingos coming to their new home in Lake Nakuru – a staple tourist site to this day. His poetic descriptions truly bring the African landscape to life, making it easy to imagine the settings of this exotic continent.  According to Kimani, not only can it entertain purely as a piece of engaging fiction but hopefully educate those on the facts of Kenya’s colonial legacy.

My novel questions the idea of European colonisation of Africa as shining ‘light’ on the continent…”

However, in the Dance of the Jakaranda, Kimani successfully redirects the light to shine on the story of European colonisation in an engaging manner, which will keep you reading from start to finish. 

The Dance of The Jakaranda by Peter Kimani. Published by Saqi Books

Tasha Mathur is a blogger and member of The Books Without Borders Bookclub part of http://www.globooks.net

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Dance of The Jakaranda: Peter Kimani GloBooks Reviews