Four siblings describe growing up in Lagos as virtual orphans, left to fend for themselves.
Covering a period of twenty years (1996 – 2015), Nigerian writer Tola Rotimi Abraham’s debut novel, Black Sunday, describes the mixed fortunes of four siblings. There are the twin sisters Bibike and Ariyike, and brothers Peter and Andrew. Each sibling has an alternating chapter in which they chronicle their lives in a Lagos slum.
The book begins when the siblings are all young children. Their mother has lost her government job due to political reasons out of her control, and their father loses all his money in some dodgy business dealing. Both parents run out on their children, leaving them in the care of their grandmother.
What follows is the story of each child growing up in poverty and uncertainty, vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. There is no real plot to Black Sunday, it’s more a series of vignettes of Nigerian street life, even a rake’s progress as the children’s lives become more miserable and compromised. That makes Black Sunday sound pretty grim, and it is, but it’s also shot through with plenty of dark humour.
An unvarnished look Lagos’ urban underbelly, featuring a rogues’ gallery of street hustlers, crooked businessmen and hypocritical religious figures. The book paints a particularly disturbing picture of the life of young women – raped, exploited and demeaned, with little to no chance of getting ahead in a world where the cards are stacked against them.
Often uncomfortable, yet necessary reading.
Black Sunday, by Tola Rotimi Abraham. Published by Cannongate. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
William Melvin Kelley (1937-2017), an African-American writer, published his first novel A Different Drummer at the age of twenty-four to great acclaim. Two years later came the short story collection, Dancers on the Shore.
Written in crystal clear prose, these stories cover the complications of family life and examine race relations in America. Each story is simply told and compelling, giving them a classic, universal feel. A young woman falls pregnant and must turn to her family for help; a man contemplates marrying a woman he's not sure he loves; a drunken white man accosts a coloured man and presumes too much; a long forgotten musician experiences a comeback; a young man meets his intellectual hero, only to find disappointment.
Kelley's stories are perfect nuggets of emotional truth, perfectly capturing the human condition: wrong choices, the humiliations of life, awkward family relationships and the many ways that love can go wrong. A highly enjoyable collection that resonates deeply.
Dancers on the Shore, by William Melvin Kelley. Published by Riverrun. $22.99
Review by Chris Saliba
There are serious growing pains when teenager Ford McCullen feels his life being pulled in many directions at once.
Sixteen-year-old Ford McCullen lives in Coburg with his Mum and grandparents, Noonie and Pop. When his paternal grandmother, Queenie, comes into some money, she gifts him an enrollment at St Anthony’s in posh Toorak. Shuttling between the two suburbs, his violin in tow, Ford cops some flack from his Coburg mates. The violin playing is endured to keep his family happy, but is seen as pretentious by Coburg standards.
Ford is muddling through life, carrying a lot of emotional baggage. Some of his friendships are getting complicated, he longs for a girl named Ellie, his mother has serious mental health issues and his relationship with his father, who left his mother for another man, is strained. He sees his father as remote and disinterested, making Ford wonder where he fits in, if at all.
Tobias McCorkell’s debut novel, Everything in its Right Place, is a funny, heart wrenching and refreshingly frank portrayal of troubled youth. Ford’s story of increasing isolation and disconnection is told in the loutish street talk of boozing and brawling teenage boys, yet is smartly written and organised. A coming of age story that devastates with its sense of grief and loneliness.
Everything in its Right Place, by Tobias McCorkell. Published by Transit Lounge. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Angel Deverell escapes her working class roots, only to become entombed in a grand yet crumbling palatial house.
Elizabeth Taylor’s 1957 novel, Angel, opens with a fifteen-year-old Angelica (“Angel”) Deverell determined to avoid her mother and aunt’s plans for her. Angel’s widowed mother runs a small grocery shop and her Aunt Lottie toils as a maid for Madam at Paradise House. The two women are pleased with themselves when they secure a position at Paradise House for Angel. When the proposition is run past the young girl, she is shocked and indignant. There is no way she’s going to serve the likes of Madam. Instead, she begins to write a novel. Her mother and Aunt Lottie hold dubious hopes for this enterprise, but Angel persists. The resulting novel The Lady Irania is an overblown, overwritten piece of melodrama in which its author has great confidence. She takes the manuscript, by herself, to London, and manages to find a publisher. It’s a hit and so begins a career pumping out similar trashy titles, making her and her publishers rich.
Despite this success, all is not well. Angel finds her work receives excoriating reviews and she is often a figure of mirth in literary circles. Compounding the problem is the author’s strange, unsympathetic personality. Angel lives in a doggedly unreal world where absurd personal fantasies are entertained. She believes she is a great author and yet the world failing to pay its proper due. This makes Angel entirely humourless, even bloodyminded.
Success leads to riches, and to problems. Angel buys Paradise House, a personal vindication, but as the years carry on she marries a cad and takes on too many expenses, ending up in old age a certifiable crackpot, deeply in debt, the once lavish Paradise House crumbling around her ears.
Angel makes for addictive reading. Elizabeth Taylor is an expert at building up complex characters that fascinate and repulse. The whole novel is one long, delicious train wreck as Angel drags along a cast of unwilling characters, or victims if you will, caught up in her unfortunate rise to the top. There are brilliantly evoked scenes in which Angel’s publishers absolutely dread having to conduct meetings, dinners and get togethers with their star writer, knowing how unreasonable and unpleasant she is. Anyone whose heart has sunk at an unwanted invitation will readily commiserate. The novel also has more than its fair share of humour, such as when Angel visits her friend and rival, Lady Bailey, at her sumptuous house. When Angel falls asleep on the journey, her weary driver dare not wake her upon arrival. Lady Bailey, for her part, has caught a chill and can’t come from her bed. The maids and servants run back and forth between car and house, until the driver takes Angel back home. There she finally wakes, to be told of the farcical events.
It’s difficult to say what the exact theme of Angel is, although besides being a sharp character study of a cantankerous and self-deluded woman, it does offer a subtle analysis of class and money (Taylor was briefly a member of the British Communist Party.) Angel as a young girl fantasises about inheriting Paradise House, this contrasted against the hard life of her working class mother and aunt. When she does finally buy Paradise House, it becomes a symbol of the emptiness and moral vacuity at the centre of such supposed opulence. Her mother and Aunt Lottie are fawning and deferential to power, but we sympathise with them, whereas the financially powerful Angel is a thoughtless, self-centred monster.
A brilliant and merciless study in human depravity.
Angel, by Elizabeth Taylor. Vintage Classics. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
An early Italian feminist classic for readers of Elena Ferrante
Sibilla Aleramo (1876 – 1960) was an Italian feminist and writer. Her real name was Marta Felicina Faccio, but she wrote under a pseudonym. In 1906 she published her debut novel, the autobiographical Una Donna (A Woman).
The unnamed narrator tells of her girlhood in Milan. She adores her father, who indulges her with a fair amount of independence. All is not good at home, though. Her mother is clearly stifled by the narrow confines of her life, looking after three children, and is suffering serious mental health issues. The expected role of Italian women at this period is to be obedient to their husbands and eschew any kind of ambition.
The father soon gets a business opportunity in the south of Italy running a factory and the family pulls up stumps and leaves. By now the narrator is a teenager and also works at the factory. When a young man shows an interest in her, she tries to gently push him away, but ends up raped. Extraordinarily, she feels obliged to marry him. And so begins a life of misery and madness. They have a child, the marriage is endured for many years until a crisis is reached and a terrible choice must be made.
Una Donna comes down to us today a remarkably modern novel. There is not much about it that is dated or out of place. The writing is clear and simple (if at times a touch florid), describing in calm tones the suffocating and repressive lot of Italian women at the beginning of the 20th century. It is also avowedly feminist, calling out in a firm, reasoned voice the need for women to be treated with respect as intelligent beings. Aleramo spends a lot of time in Una Donna discussing the inner life of women – the emotional, intellectual and creative – and highlighting the need to access those freedoms that nourish mind, body and soul.
Highly respected in Italy, this fresh, accessible translation should bring Sibilla Aleramo many new readers in English.
A Woman, by Sibilla Aleramo. Penguin Modern Classics. $22.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A nation of news threatens to take over the world
When a crackpot seaman named Captain J. van Toch encounters a clever breed of giant newts on a small island in Sumatra, his discoveries bring him to the attention of financier Mr Gussie H. Bondy. The extraordinary thing about the newts is that they have an above average intelligence. They can speak basic human language and are adept at learning industrial techniques. Captain van Toch has them trained to farm pearls. The captain also arms his newts so they can defend themselves against sharks, a major predator that keeps their numbers in check. The newt population consequently explodes and moves to all corners of the earth.
Mr Bondy, the industrialist, forms a “Salamander Syndicate” which exploits newt labour for commercial gain. As the newts are trained to perform ever more technically complex engineering feats, they start to use their new knowledge to assert themselves. A series of earthquakes start to cause worldwide havoc and it’s discovered that their root cause might be from the ocean. Could it the newts?
Czech author Karel Capek wrote this broad spectrum satire in 1936. Everything gets a good roasting: capitalism, modern markets, science, politics and diplomacy. The novel does an expert job of ridiculing human vanity. Humans take it for granted that newts can be used as a source of free labour, basically slaves, but fool themselves into believing they are treating their workforce humanely. The sections detailing cruel experiments on the newts remind that animal welfare has hardly progressed at all.
The novel has an interesting, patchwork style, with no main characters or protagonist. The story reads like a fictionalised history, with excerpts from newspaper articles, academic studies and memoirs forming part of the narrative. A lot of the humour comes from these sections that lampoon official scientific papers and self-aggrandising writers and explorers.
Written against a backdrop of rising Nazism (War with the Newts was banned by the Nazis in 1940), this Science Fiction classic offers a comprehensive and penetrating critique of politics, science and industry. A novel that is astonishingly relevant today and unique for its imaginative and intellectual powers.
War with the News, by Kapel Carek. Penguin Modern Classics. $22.99
Review by Chris Saliba
German writer Irmgard Keun published After Midnight (1937) after she’d fled Germany in 1936. Her best selling books had been banned, putting her life under risk.
It’s 1930s Germany. The drums of war are beating and Hitler is omnipotent. Everyone must be vigilant that they say the right thing and are not seen to be critical of the Nazi regime. But the times are so topsy turvy, it’s often hard to figure out what is seditious behavior and what is not. Family members are informing on each other, and an innocent remark can find you up before a court, or worse, disappeared. Trying to make her way through this increasingly mad world is Sanna, a nineteen-year-old who has moved to Frankfurt. She moves through bars and clubs with her group of friends, picking up people as they go, and listens to all sorts of raving voices about the coming war, the Nazis and the general state of the nation. Sanna is in love with Franz, and when she finds out he is in dire trouble, she makes a promise that she will help him, a promise it may be beyond her to keep.
Sanna’s story is written in the smart and energetic voice of a young woman on the go, someone who likes to socialise and have fun, but who is also alive to the many ironies of life. The first thing to strike about Keun’s prose is its contemporary feel. It’s as though a young woman of today had written it, making it easy to sympathise with Sanna’s plight, indeed, walk in her shoes. There’s also a lot of wit and sharp observations in Sanna’s narration. The witty novels of Anita Loos comes to mind, whose stories concentrated on clever girls getting ahead and seeing through the world’s hypocrisies. Here, however, the backdrop is one of looming terror and violence, giving After Midnight a feeling of mounting dread, like a nightmare.
A concise, perfectly executed short novel that has lost none of its urgency or relevance.
After Midnight, by Irmgard Keun. Penguin Modern Classics. $19.99
North Melbourne Books