What Hell is Not: Alessandro d’Avenia

★★★★

Don Pino Puglisi is a ray of light in the bleak Palermitan suburb of Brancaccio. More than fifty years ago, he was brought up in this claustrophobic neighbourhood and now, as a priest, he has returned to minister to his flock. And to the children most of all. For Brancaccio is a hell on earth. Dominated by the Mafia, it is a place without hope, without prospects, overlooked by the government ministers who are too frightened, or too corrupt, to intervene. There is no middle school; there are no parks; no space for children to grow. And so Don Pino comes home to fight for Brancaccio’s visibility: to campaign for a better world. Love, hope, compassion: these are things which challenge the Mafia’s stronghold and which try to make hell a better place. But of course the Mafia don’t take kindly to meddling priests. Gritty and heartbreaking, this is a story of one man’s struggle to change the world. It will appeal to those who’ve read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, but there’s a twist in the tale; for this is a true story.

Continue reading

Adèle: Leïla Slimani

★★★

Having read Leïla Slimani’s Lullaby last year, I was keen to try her new novel, Adèle. Like Lullaby, this takes us beyond the polished facade of a comfortable, upper-middle-class Parisian family and shows us the hypocrisy and unhappiness within. This time our protagonists are Adèle, a journalist, and her husband Richard, a successful surgeon. They have a son, Lucien, and spend Christmas holidays with Richard’s wealthy family in the country. It’s a superficially perfect existence; but there are cracks beneath the surface. Adèle, the beautiful, serene, accomplished wife, hides a dark secret: ever since she was a child, she has been a sex addict, compulsively seeking out sensual experiences with as many people as she can, using these moments to anchor herself against the great, vast meaninglessness of the world. Yet Adèle’s time is running out and, when she makes a pass at a colleague of Richard’s, her whole carefully-constructed world is about to collapse.

Continue reading

The Consequences of Love: Sulaiman Addonia

★★★

Sulaiman Addonia must be one of the few authors whose life has been as dramatic as his fiction. Born in Eritrea, he spent his childhood in a refugee camp in Sudan and then moved as a teenager to Jeddah, where his mother had been working for some time as a servant. Later, he and his brother came to London; and, more recently still, he has moved to Brussels with his Belgian partner and their son. The protagonist of this debut novel shares some of Addonia’s own displaced history, although in other important ways he’s had a very different experience. Struggling to make ends meet as a foreign worker in Jeddah, Naser lives in a strange world where life is governed by the whims of his kafeel (Saudi sponsor) and the dictates of the religious police, and where men and women inhabit fiercely segregated worlds. Then, one hot and languid summer, a girl drops a note at Naser’s feet in the street. Shrouded in her burqa, she has fallen in love with him; but he can only recognise her by her shoes. It’s the beginning of a heartfelt story of forbidden love played out in the shadow of the fundamentalist regime.

Continue reading

The Vegetarian: Han Kang

★★★

If Gloriana unsettled me with its profuse exuberance, Han Kang’s Booker prizewinning 2015 novel takes the opposite tack. This is a book in which everything has been stifled and pressed down into aching silence. Its protagonist, a young woman named Yeong-hye, is trapped in an unhappy marriage with a self-centred, indifferent and arrogant husband who kicks off the book by informing us that she is ‘passive’, has ‘neither freshness nor charm’ and that he’s always thought her ‘unremarkable in every way’. For years, Yeong-hye has ministered to her husband’s needs quietly and efficiently; but things are about to change. One night, an alarming dream prompts Yeong-hye to make an announcement. She is becoming a vegetarian. It’s a step which leads to chaos within her family and scandal outside it, as Yeong-hye’s lifestyle choice becomes caught up in the much broader question of women’s self-determination. Ironic, compassionate and brutal by turns, this is an uncompromising book: one that isn’t always easy to read, but which shines a fierce light on the injustices of a heavily patriarchal society.

Continue reading

Innocence: Roald Dahl

★★★★

Tales of Youth and Guile

What a crazy few weeks it’s been! Having shuttled back and forth between London, Oxford, Leeds and Washington, I expected to get lots of reading done, but unfortunately I’ve developed an irritating tendency to fall asleep as soon as the train or plane gets moving. Now back home, having shaken off the worst of the jet-lag, I took refuge on my sofa from the nasty cold rain outside and treated myself to the first of several books of Roald Dahl’s short stories, recently reissued in thematic collections by Penguin. Like most people, I suspect, I read lots of Dahl when I was small but never progressed to his writing for adults. This particular collection, with its themes of childhood and naivete, includes Dahl’s autobiography Boy (written for children), as well as a group of other short stories (for grown-ups), some of which reflect his own experiences through a fictional lens.

Continue reading

Siracusa: Delia Ephron

★★★½

It was meant to be such a delightful break. Two American couples, tangentially connected, decide to holiday together in Italy: first in Rome and then in Syracuse in Sicily (‘Siracusa’, the characters call it, to distinguish it from Syracuse in New York). Vivacious Lizzie hopes to rekindle her relationship with her novelist husband Michael, who has withdrawn into his most recent book. Her old flame Finn, now married to uptight Taylor, looks forward to spending time with his irrepressible former girlfriend. And Taylor, prim and self-consciously cultured, looks forward to introducing her precious daughter Snow to the glories of the Old World. Yet our travellers find that Italy exacerbates, rather than heals, their divisions. And worse is to come, for Siracusa will prove the backdrop to a tragic and unforeseen crescendo.

Continue reading

Red Birds: Mohammed Hanif

★★½

My brain feels a little scrambled right now. I thought I knew what I was getting with this book and, for the first two thirds, I did get that, more or less: an ironic satire on the modern cycle of war and international aid. We’re introduced to the bleak aftermath of war in a remote corner of an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Smart, ambitious teenager Momo has dreams of becoming a billionaire entrepreneur, fuelled by the stories he’s read in his dad’s magazine about the Fortune 500. But how’s a kid to get started in a place like this, where even the aid workers have given up and drifted away, and the local American air base has shut up shop? To make matters worse, Momo’s big brother has been missing for months, his dog Mutt has got himself electrocuted, and an American pilot has just wandered in from the desert. And what of those red birds? Well, that’s where it all gets more than a little weird.

Continue reading

The Wife: Meg Wolitzer

★★★★

Everyone has been talking about this novel recently, as its film adaptation hits cinemas amid whispers of an Oscar nomination for its protagonist Glenn Close. I’m keen to see the film, which gave me the impetus to finally dig out the book from my TBR pile. That pile houses several other novels by Wolitzer, although this is the first I’ve read. If it’s anything to go by, I have plenty of other treats in store. Acerbic, ironic and wise by turn, this novel is a blistering criticism of male privilege, set in a very particular milieu – 1970s and 1980s American literary circles – which, like a stone dropped into a deep pool, sends out ripples which lick against our modern shores.

Continue reading

Gentlemen & Players: Joanne Harris

★★★★

It’s funny really: I’ve spent most of my life with completely the wrong impression of Joanne Harris, writing her off as an author of cutesy French tales like Chocolat (which perhaps isn’t particularly cutesy itself; I must reread it). And yet she’s so much more than that. She’s written ironic mythical fantasy (The Gospel of Loki), nuanced historical fiction (Holy Fools) and now, I discover, gripping thrillers. I came to Gentlemen & Players because I have a soft spot for fiction set in schools (blame The History Boys, I suppose), and I was attracted by this book’s setting at St Oswald’s: a self-consciously old-fashioned private school for boys. But I stayed for the increasingly compelling tale of Machiavellian revenge, as the school unwittingly nurtures a viper in its bosom: someone with an old grudge against St Oswald’s, who has finally decided to take down the school bit by bit from within. And, when I finished the book, I was sorely tempted to go right back to the beginning and start again, because Harris pulls off a piece of narrative legerdemain that is so completely brilliant that I wanted to revisit everything with full understanding.

Continue reading

Love Online: Lisa Tuttle

★★

This is the first Lisa Tuttle book that I’ve read, though I have several more already lined up on my Kindle, and it probably wasn’t the best one to choose. English girl Rose Durcan has come to stay with her grandmother at Wishbone Creek while her scientist parents head out for fieldwork in Africa. This means Rose must attend American high school, something which fills her with anxiety: she’d much rather be online, playing long-distance with her brother Simon (a student at Oxford) in one of their multiplayer adventures. But school has to be endured, and her first day isn’t that bad: she sees the delectable Orson Banks, on whom she immediately develops a crush. Unfortunately, Orson only has eyes for the aloof Olivia, who in turn has no interest in dating. But there is one way that Rose can get close to Orson: the online gaming world of Illyria, where Orson takes the role of Count Orsini and Rose, eager to spend even some virtual time in his company, adopts the persona of a helpful young musician, Roberto.

Continue reading