Not sure what subject to tackle in an end of the year scribble, I’ve settled for briefly reviewing three books I read in 2018. They were all published in 2016 and written by: i) an American man; ii) a British woman with roots in Jamaica; and, iii) a Turk who has been a visiting scholar and professor in the USA. There’s a common thread in the three tales of children growing up, maturing and along their very different ways discovering that the world is often hostile and incomprehensible. Is there hope in these stories too? I’m not sure.
I’ll start with The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Little Brown), which won several prizes including the 2017 Pulitzer for best fiction. The story is fairly straightforward: Cora is a young woman enslaved on a southern plantation in the mid-19th Century, who is approached by another rebellious slave and persuaded to escape using the underground railway – a network of hidden “connections – to go northwards and find a better life. But the narration of her adventures is rich with images that are truly horrible reminders of the horrors of slavery in America. At times the writing seems to be screaming about the evil, violence and perversion that have shaped race relations in the USA since the white colonialists decided to profit from the abundant supply of cheap African labour. From the perspective of a 21st Century European living close to the top of the global pecking order, the painful underground journey is marked in particular by awareness of the risks taken by those brave people who rise up against currents of hatred at times when mass hysteria and fear are haunting the land… No doubt there are lessons to be learned. There is also extreme sadness in the story when the fate of Cora’s mother is finally revealed towards the end.
Zadie Smith also highlights the fate of mothers in her magical novel Swing Time (Penguin). The tale of two daughters who become friends at a childhood dancing club and then grow through diverging paths with the ups and downs of success and failure, this is an engrossing cross-cultural, modern novel. All the social and political tensions of the early 21st century are on display around London’s housing estates, in West African villages and amongst the celebs and jet setters of New York. These worlds are contrasted through the stories of the two girls and their relationships with their mothers as well as with a couple of somewhat hopeless, more or less absent, fathers. How do we manage our unrealistic dreams, family tensions, the disappointments of love affairs and the inequalities and injustices of our societies? Zadie Smith has been a Granta best young British novelist and won the Orange Prize for Fiction.
I’ve read other books and essays by Orhan Pamuk in the past and was very pleased to be given The Red Haired Woman (Faber and Faber) as a gift. Turkey has loomed large in my life and I often wish that I could spend more time getting to know ”the timeless bridge” between Europe and Asia. The novel begins in Istanbul in the shadow of the 1980 coup d’état, which was when I visited the country for the first time. It tells the story of a boy losing his father and becoming apprenticed to a well-digger, of teenage lust, of a young man growing up to become a successful entrepreneur in the booming construction industry of a booming metropolis, of a childless marriage and then… the surprise in part three. The twists and turns of the Oedipus adventure underpin the story and readers learn that there was also an equivalent ancient Persian version, with a protagonist called Sohrab. The strange dynamics of fathers and sons are subtly analysed by Pamuk, who is the only Turk to have won the Nobel prize for literature.