The Baghdad Clock: Shahad Al Rawi

★★½

I’ve been struggling with this book on and off for about a year, which is odd, because many people have written enthusiastic reviews of it. It’s the kind of book that, to be slightly cynical, one feels that one should admire. Essentially autobiographical, it tells the tale of a young girl, her friends and her neighbourhood in Baghdad, beginning in 1991 and finishing in 2003. It invites us to imagine growing up under the cloud of two wars and crippling sanctions. It shows us a picture of a community which remains resilient in the face of hardship for as long as it can, and it traces the things which remain important even when your country is falling apart: love, hope, the dreams of the future. And I do admire the spirit and the courage of the neighbourhood memorialised in the novel. What jarred with me, however, is the way the story is told: detached and dreamlike, it wanders in and out of magical realism without any sense of narrative discipline. Some readers have found that charming; for me, alas, it felt only messy.

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The Mere Wife: Maria Dahvana Headley

★★★★

Dana Wills is dead. That’s what everyone thinks, and she’s happy to keep it that way. She was beheaded live on TV, after all, a soldier taken hostage in a desert war she never really cared about. She came back to herself dazed, stranded in the middle of the sands, six months pregnant, with no memory of what went before. Now she’s home, with her son. And, with her soldier’s ruthlessness, Dana will do anything to protect her Gren. She heads to a mountain above the place where she grew up, her home now flattened beneath the shining enclave of Herot Hall. Here wealthy women jostle for status within their shining, perfect homes. Life is a round of cocktail parties, gossip and side-eye judging, and Willa Herot is beginning to chafe at the edges of her picture-perfect existence. Wife to Robert Herot, and mother to seven-year-old Dylan, she should be at the top of the tree. But, when Dylan starts chattering about an imaginary friend called Gren, Willa begins to panic. A masterful, forceful modern retelling of Beowulf, this is a tale of dangerous women, and the two boys caught between them.

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Vox: Christina Dalcher

★★★★

Jean McClellan’s life has become one of few words. It wasn’t always this way. She was once a brilliant neurolinguist, running a groundbreaking team of researchers. But now, every time she speaks, the metal counter on her wrist ticks down from the daily allowance of 100 to the grim nullity of 0. To speak after the counter reaches 0 is to risk a series of rapidly intensifying electric shocks. All women in the US have been issued with these counters, from infants to the elderly, round about the same time that they were removed wholesale from the workforce and sent back to their ‘proper’ place in the home. Now Jean lives in a daze of depression, watching her four children adjust to a world in which women are penalised, and longing for her lacklustre husband Patrick to make a stand against these wretched innovations. But, with the weak President following the lead of the charismatic, dangerous conservative Reverend Carl Corbin, and the unreformed masses baying for the blood of those who step out of line, what’s the chance of change? Sobering and scary, this is The Handmaid’s Tale for our time, which should be read both by women and men: an all-too-plausible next step to damnation.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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