“Passing” was practiced by some light skinned African-Americans during the early part of the twentieth century. It forms the basis of Nella Larsen's classic, Passing.
Nella Larsen (1891-1964) was an American novelist, of mixed race parentage. Her father was Afro-Caribbean and her mother a Danish immigrant. Larsen published two novels during her lifetime, Quicksand(1928) and Passing (1929). A plagiarism controversy in 1930, surrounding one of her short stories, “Sanctuary”, sapped Larsen of all literary creativity. She never published fiction again.
At a Chicago restaurant Irene Redfield runs into an old childhood friend she hasn’t seen in many years, Clare Kendry. Clare is described as stunningly beautiful, almost dangerously so. She has done well for herself, marrying a white man, Jack. There are serious problems for Clare, though, as she hasn’t told her husband – a racist – that she is actually black. If he were to find out, who knows what he would do?
Irene is also married to a white man, a doctor, who knows she is not white, although she will often “pass” for the sake of convenience – at restaurants and the theatre. Irene doesn’t want for material comforts. She has two maids, a nice house and lives elegantly. The revived friendship with Clare, however, is bringing her problems she doesn’t need. Clare keeps popping up, insisting she wants to accompany Irene on trips to Harlem as she misses the people of her own race. Irene sees this as dangerous. What if Clare’s husband, Jack, were to find out?
Clare’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and Irene does all she can to avoid her. Things come to a tragic head, however, at a New York party.
Passing tackles key American questions of race, status and class. Both women wish to be financially secure and respected, and the only true route to achieving such status is by “passing” as white. Yet this carries an enormous psychological toll. Both women suffer great anguish and discomfort. This is highlighted in the scene where Irene meets Clare’s husband, Jack, and must hold her tongue while he spouts all types of racist nonsense. Although we learn one sharp lesson from this, explicitly stated in the text: black people know more about whites than they know about them. They know how ignorant and short sighted whites are, unable to even pick up clues that would alert them to the fact these women are “passing”.
There are a few minor drawbacks with the text. Larsen writes in a stilted and self-conscious prose that can sometimes appear a little dated. Some sections can demand extra attention to figure out what is going on. That said, Passingis undoubtedly an important literary work and cultural document. It reveals the enormous stress and burden that race imposes on African-American citizens and the peril involved in negotiating that dangerous world of prejudice.
Passing, by Nella Larsen. Published by Restless Classics. RRP: $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Two early novellas capture with clarity the often strange and cruel world of childhood.
Dutch author Gerard Reve (1923-2006) has only recently come to the attention of English readers. His 1947 novel The Evenings was translated to much acclaim in 2016. Now translator Sam Garrett brings two of Reve’s early novellas together in a single volume called Childhood.
In "Werther Nieland", eleven-year-old Elmer describes his neighbourhood world. He invents secret clubs, recruits then drops members, invents rudimentary science projects, helps friends (unsuccessfully) explode homemade bombs and fires malfunctioning guns at defenceless birds. It’s very much a boy’s world, full of cruelty, creativity, spontaneity and ritual. Elmer’s friendships with the boys Dirk, Werther and Maarten are as much about play as they are about competition and exploitation.
The second, shorter novella, "The Fall of the Boslowits", chronicles the cruel fate of the Boslowits family as the Germans occupy Amsterdam during the Second World War. Narrated by teenage family friend Simon, the Boslowits, whom we presume are Jewish, are already in a vulnerable position. The father, Hans, cannot walk and the son, Otto, has an intellectual disability. Slowly but surely the beatings and disappearances start, family assets are stripped, until the full nightmare reaches its ghastly conclusion.
Gerard Reve’s evocative language and extraordinary recall of the stranger details of childhood gives these two novellas a realism that is unerring and unforgettable.
Childhood, by Gerard Reeve. Pushkin Press. $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Ben Okri addresses issues of political oppression and the meaning of life in this beautifully written novel.
In a yellow house a young boy named Mirababa is reading an ancient myth to his grandfather. Some time later the grandfather dies and the boy is visited by a group of old bards. The bards lead Mirababa into the forest. He is to be initiated as the new myth-maker.
In another house, a young man named Karnak is with his lover, Amalantis, a fearless woman who quests for the truth. One morning they hear three knocks at the door. When they open the door they see three men. The men take away Amalantis.
In alternating narratives, we follow Mirababa and Karnak’s differing paths. Mirababa experiences a spiritual journey, visiting a mysterious garden and finally becoming a boy-warrior, a semi-divine figure. Karnak suffers much as he tries to find Amalantis. The all-powerful Hierarchy, an omnipotent yet invisible government bureaucracy, ensures his search is frustrated. The Hierarchy has banned books. All the original myths have been rewritten. Even planting seeds, to grow plants and flowers, is forbidden.
Yet there is hope. Flyers are found flapping in the breeze with the slogan “Uprise!” on them. An image of a rose keeps appearing. People are starting to learn that they can be free. The boy-warrior, Mirababa, helps the people learn this.
Ben Okri’s new novel is a political allegory, or as Okri notes in the preface, “a fable of our times”. The novel describes an almost Orwellian world of state oppression, where reality is re-written as propaganda. The central idea of the story is that we are all born into a metaphorical prison. Life is a prison and our very thoughts perpetuate this imprisonment. But there is a way out. We can re-write our story and live a new reality, one of freedom.
While much of The Freedom Artist has a dystopian flavour, its poetic language and evocative imagery save it from being bleak. The book is organised into six parts and has the feel of a long, extended dream sequence. It’s a great pleasure to read. Okri explicitly avoids any didactic message and asks the reader to take their own meaning from the text. This may make the novel appear difficult or opaque, but that’s not the case. Okri’s vision sweeps you along and the big issues it addresses makes it a work of urgent contemplation.
A plaintive, poetic novel that has a soaring message of hope, despite its disturbing narrative.
The Freedom Artist, by Ben Okri. Published by Head of Zeus. RRP: $29.99
Released 29th January 2019
Review by Chris Saliba
Normal People explores with superb precision the emotional complexity of an on-again, off-again relationship between two young people.
Irish writer Sally Rooney’s sudden fame seems too good to be true, especially considering she’s only twenty-seven years old. One is almost tempted to ignore all the hoopla. Her second novel, Normal People, has followed on quickly from her debut, Conversations With Friends.
Recently a reading copy of Normal People fell in my lap. Twenty pages in and I thought it was a bit slow. Despite this, I pressed on a bit further and soon found myself hooked. I didn’t want it to end.
The story concerns two university students, Marianne and Connell, and their on-again, off-again relationship. Both are navigating sex, friendships, study, school politics and careers. Marianne is complicated, with a troubled family history; she is perceived by her schoolmates as somewhere between awkward and freakish. She doesn’t know her place in the world, wonders if she’ll ever find it and borders on being masochistic. Connell is more “normal”, but as the novel progresses, we learn he has some serious mental health issues.
The novel is told episodically, with several months elapsing between chapters. Within the chapters the timelines jerk back and forth, detailing previous events then jumping forward. Marianne and Connell split up, start new relationships that fail, try to get back together, repeating this pattern over and over. They love each other, but somehow, due to their damaged natures, can’t maintain a normal relationship.
There are echoes of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in Normal People. Rooney writes in a simple, concise language, exploring the deeper recesses of the psyche with delicacy and a striking clarity. Her ability to capture the things that are left unsaid between people, the strange and indecipherable moods we all experience, is uncanny. Rooney sticks to what she knows – the domestic, university life, friendships – creating fiction that has the ring of truth.
There is a brittleness and sensitivity in Normal People that makes you feel like you are holding in your hands a rare glass or tea cup. You can’t help but care deeply for Rooney’s characters, sympathising with their struggles.
A work of surprising maturity and insight.
Normal People, by Sally Rooney. Published by Faber. RRP: $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A little known 1983 Swiss novel about man's brutal relationship to animals makes a welcome return.
Beat Sterchi is a Swiss writer whose only novel, Cow, examines in exhaustive detail the way animals are treated by humans as either amusing sentient beings or merely a commercial product on an abattoir factory line. Originally published in German under the title Blosch (meaning “blush”, as in the colour red), Cow is a work of great originality.
The novel has two narratives which alternate, chapter by chapter. The first chronicles a season at Farmer Knuschel’s dairy farm in the town of Innerwald. A Spanish foreign worker, Ambrosio, turns up as cheap labour and Farmer Knuschel is pleased with his work, but there are xenophobic rumblings in the town and some locals start agitating for the farm hand’s removal.
Another main character in this first narrative is the dairy cow, Blosch. She is described as an empress, the reigning queen of Farmer Knuschel’s stable of dairy cows. She has been producing bull calves for her entire reproductive career, but Farmer Knuschel would like her to produce a female calf.
The scenes in this first narrative have an idyllic, almost dreamlike quality, shot through with gentle satire and irony. They’re almost like something out of a story by Chekov or Gogol, with lush descriptions of rolling hills, green fields and hypnotically mooing cows.
The second narrative takes place seven years later, when Ambrosio is working at a nearby abattoir. The whole tone of these chapters is brutal and frank in describing the work of killing, dismembering and processing animal carcasses. It’s ugly, filthy and dangerous work. Intestines, lungs, hearts and all manner of body parts are pulled out, thrown onto assembly lines, dunked in sterilising baths and readied for sale. Workers, who are poor or foreign, often lose body parts due to the dangerous nature of the work. It’s really a hell on earth.
Into this bloody nightmare walks Blosch. After her majestic appearance in chapter one, it’s a shock to see her terrible fate in chapter two, the alternate abattoir chapter. Sterchi describes her awaiting her fate:
“She was civilised inside and out, horn to udder, even on the abattoir platform she remained submissive and meek.”
In further scenes the horror continues when one of Blosch’s calves is also sent to be slaughtered. As the novel continues, alternating between farm and abattoir, the idyllic is contrasted against the monstrous, even though both worlds are intimately connected.
Beat Sterchi trained as a butcher, and he seems to have had first hand experience of every aspect of how an abattoir is run. The detail is exhaustive - written almost with a poet’s eye for image and metaphor - and not simple shock value alone. The double narrative is well sustained over 400 pages and never gets bogged down, despite the subject matter. The energetic pace, mixed with the wide cast of characters, keeps the reader on their toes. Cow reads like a classic, with its own unique voice, language and themes, all effortlessly woven together.
There are obvious parallels with Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the classic expose of Chicago’s meat packing district. Cow exposes the ruthlessness of the capitalist system (the workers are always under pressure to work faster and produce more meat, no matter the dangers) and how foreign workers are exploited for their cheap labour. It also examines the relationship humans have with animals.
“The cow stood and bled, and it was as though she knew the long history of her kind, as if she knew she was one of those mothers cheated of their rich white milk, who had offered their teats for thousands of years, and for thousands of years had been devoured in recompense.”
Cow doesn’t preach a message, although it does hold up a mirror to the human soul. The view is dark and unsettling.
Cow, by Beat Sterchi. Head of Zeus. RRP: $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A fiendishly funny comedy of clashing personalities and competing interests.
Mitch Bishop is having a bad year. He’s up against it on all fronts. The Water Authority wants him to upgrade the channel on his struggling farm, an exorbitant expense he can ill afford. His conniving, rotten-to-the-core wife, Mandy, is working against his best interests, literally sleeping with the enemy. She’s got the hots for Stacey, an easily corrupted official from the Water Authority, and does some horse trading of her own during their afternoon trysts at the local pub.
When Neralie McIntosh moves back to their small town after a five year stint making money in Sydney, the sparks are set to fly. Neralie was Mitch’s only true love. It was only through a series of unfortunate circumstances that Mitch ended married to the awful Mandy. But Mandy isn’t about to let Mitch and Neralie live happily ever after. Over her dead body. Not that she’s jealous, or wants Mitch for herself. Her interests are purely financial. She wants to reap whatever the farm’s worth and is ready to trade the property’s water rights.
Rosalie Ham’s The Year of the Farmer is a fiendishly funny novel set in a small farming community. It has a wide, fully fleshed cast of characters, all convincingly drawn and true to life. The dialogue is whip smart and sharply observed. Ham really captures the laconic, clipped, no-nonsense language of the Aussie pub, shopping strip and home kitchen, with all its humour and blunt irony. This is an Australia you’ll easily recognise. The plot is a chunky, interlocking affair, dealing with farming politics, pointless bureaucracy, government agency corruption, fast moving town gossip and fractious personal relationships.
At the centre of The Year of the Farmer is Mandy, an astonishingly malevolent force. She’s a bad seed who delights in ruining everyone’s day. She scratches a drawing of a penis and testicles on an enemy’s car, leaves the lights on so her elderly father-in-law will have to get up out of his chair, hopes the children at the local playground will break their necks and generally makes life intolerable. Mandy’s a brilliant comic invention, almost an Australian version of Thackery’s crass Becky Sharp. We know she will eventually have to get her comeuppance, as a small town can’t survive such a poisonous force, oozing bile everywhere.
The dedication at the start of the book is “For the Hams, farmers all”, and every page is full of intricate farm knowledge - of animals, weather, machinery, the land, water, farming science. Rosalie Ham seems to write from personal experience. The style and unflinching humour shows someone determined to lay the truth of farming life bare. She doesn’t eulogise the wonders of living on the land, but sticks to the unglamorous reality of petty fighting, miserable luck and the few yet considerable pleasures that the farming affords.
Tough, complex and funny, a cathartic read that also mesmerises with its skill, intelligence and wit.
The Year of the Farmer, by Rosalie Ham. Picador. RRP: $32.99
A buffoonish, pleasure-seeking state bureaucrat tries to suppress nightmare memories from his past.
Ma Daode has recently been appointed director of the China Dream Bureau. The Bureau’s project is one of national rejuvenation, a restatement of Communistic values. Ma decides the best way to do this is by erasing troubling memories of the past. He works on the idea of a ‘neural implant’, a chip that would be implanted in the brain, allowing the subject to live more perfectly the China Dream.
All should be going well for Ma. He has position, authority, wealth and a virtual harem of lovers. If only he weren’t troubled by such terrible memories, horrific images from his past. The worst memories are from the Cultural Revolution. In his youth Ma denounced his parents as “rightists”, joined a political faction and involved himself in killing, betrayal and ritual humiliations. His parents committed suicide and he can never forgive himself.
It is torture for Ma, trying to forget. He tries all sorts of diversions, but nothing works. Eventually he goes to a Qigong healer, Master Wang, who gives him a recipe for a concoction that will hopefully help him forget.
Chinese author Ma Jian, an exiled dissident who now lives in London, found the idea for this novel from President Xi Jinping’s call for a “China Dream of national rejuvenation”, one that would maintain economic success and restore China to its former glory. The novel is part satire and part political allegory, a study of the conflicted nature of the Chinese national psyche: past horrors such as the Cultural Revolution must be expunged from memory, even though they form a vital part of the country’s history.
China Dream is written with concision and clarity, perfectly animating its surreal and absurdist subject matter (full marks to Flora Drew’s superb translation). The character of Ma Daode is described almost as an affable fool. It’s easy to feel some sympathy for this clownish bungler, despite the terrible confessions from his past. Ma Jian’s surreal and ironic novel is reminiscent of Russian greats such as Dostoyevsky, Gogol and Bulgakov. It’s a work that examines the deep contradictions found in any national character that tries to suppress its past and has a universality beyond being a spoof of President Xi Jinping’s state propaganda.
China Dream, by Ma Jian. Published by Chatto and Windus. RRP: $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A vivid and joyous rendering of African American life in the early years of the 20th century.
Langston Hughes (1901 – 1967) was a much acclaimed African-American poet, playwright and columnist. His first novel, Not Without Laughter (1930), is set in the town of Stanton, Kansas. A coming of age story, the novel centres around the young boy, Sandy, as he grows to young adulthood.
The action of the story takes place in the 1910s. Sandy is being raised by his grandmother, Aunt Hager. She is a kind, hardworking, God fearing woman, the backbone of her family. She has three daughters. Annjee, Sandy’s mother, works a thankless and humiliating job as a housekeeper for a white woman, Mrs Rice. Anjee is married to Jimboy, an itinerant worker and guitar player who is not the most responsible of fathers. Aunt Tempy, the second daughter, has married well to a man with a regular job. She’s often harsh and critical of Black folks, especially their popular culture, and is determined to gain acceptance from whites, even if it means being like them. Lastly there is Harriet, the youngest. She has fire in the belly and deeply resents her treatment by white society. She stays out late, runs away from home and makes a living for herself as a singer.
Through the portraits of these four Black women – Aunt Hager, Annjee, Aunt Tempy and Aunt Harriet – the reader is shown the breadth of the African American experience, with all its frustrations, heartaches and contradictions. People of colour try to gain acceptance from whites by playing to their rules, but of course they can never win. The game is stacked against them. Then there are those that resist, and believe in fighting, like Aunt Harriet. Yet their position is precarious.
Not Without Laughter is a magical reading experience. Its style and rhythm is full of music, joy, sorrow, laughter and heartache. Langston Hughes is a master of dialogue, vividly bringing his characters to life. The beauty of African American speech infuses every page; it’s a book that sings. While there is much struggle and hardship, there is also joy and hope, hope for a better future.
Sandy grows to be a young teenager and is faced with a choice, whether to pursue an education or stay in a dead end job. The strong women that have raised him and that dominate this novel – his mother, grandmother and aunts – their voices in the end guide him to the right decision.
Not Without Laughter is a magnificent novel, a joy to read and an education in how American people of colour lived a century ago, shortly after the end of slavery.
Not Without Laughter, by Langston Hughes. Published by Penguin. RRP: $27.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A young man is asked to make a bargain with the devil, putting his beloved pet cat, Cabbage, at risk.
The unnamed narrator, a young man who works as a postman, discovers he has a terminal brain tumour. He doesn’t have long to live. Out of nowhere the devil appears, dressed in a flamboyant Hawaiian shirt, shorts and sunglasses, as though he were on holiday. His personality matches his breezy attire.
The devil makes a bargain with the young man: he can have an additional day of life, but for each day he must make something disappear from the world. At first he trades mobile phones. They disappear from the world, not such a bad thing he decides. The choices, however, become increasingly difficult, as the devil demands things disappear that have special meaning for the young man. Then comes the ultimate test: he is asked to make cats disappear from the world to live an extra day.
This causes the young man to think deeply. He has a pet cat called Cabbage who he is very close to. Cabbage was found many years ago by his recently deceased mother. Understandably, Cabbage carries all sorts of meaning, bringing memories of time spent with his family. Especially his father, who is still alive, but from whom the young man is estranged.
The basic plot outline of this short novel by Japanese author Genki Kawamura sounds grim and cheerless, but the tone is quite comic and whimsical (the young man calls the devil “Aloha”, due to his colourful shirts). Kawamura infuses his story with a light and playful tone. It enchants with its earnestness, quirky dialogue, likable characters and amusing, oddball digressions.
At heart the book is about what we need and what we don’t need, what’s most important in life and what sustains us. It’s about the fragility of life, the bonds of family and the importance of maintaining our relationships with those we love.
An unusual little gem that quickly grows on you.
If Cats Disappeared from the World, by Genki Kawamura. Published by Picador. RRP: $18.99
Review by Chris Saliba
The terrible events of the Rwandan genocide form the basis of this devastating coming-of-age story.
Gabriel, or Gaby, is ten-years-old. It’s 1992. His Rwandan mother fled her country in the 1960s due to political strife and took refuge in the neighbouring country of Burundi. She married Michel, a Frenchman, and the couple had two children. Rwanda is again descending into war. Genocide is being planned by the Hutus against the minority Tutsis, and this murderous politics is infecting Burundi. Fear is in the streets, people are being murdered and everyone has grown suspicious of each other.
Gaby and his small group of friends try to innoculate themselves against this poisonous environment, yet they are not successful. Innocence is irrevocabaly lost as they are all dragged into the terrible violence. His mother, or Maman, returns to Rwanda to try to locate missing Tutsi family members, but finds either their butchered remains or news of their murder. She turns inwards, unable to get over the horror of what she has seen.
French-Rwandan Gaël Faye’s debut novel, narrated in the first person by Gaby, is an unforgettable child’s account of war and its lasting psychological effects. The story is told in a light, simple language that develops in gravity as themes of war, mass murder and morality come to predominate. Faye’s descriptions of Burundi before the war, a child’s lost paradise, often have a restrained poetic quality about them.
The tragic events of the Rwandan genocide are made palpable, creating feelings of grief and terror.
Small Country, by Gaël Faye. Published by Hogarth. ISBN: 97817847415
Review by Chris Saliba $29.99
North Melbourne Books