Helon Habila

Measuring Time by Helon Habila skillfully weaves the political and cultural environment of Nigeria from the 1960s to the 1990s with the lives of twin boys, Mamo and LaMamo, in the Nigerian village of Keti.

 Mamo, the older twin, suffers from sickle cell anemia, is physically weak, reserved, introspective, and intellectual. LaMamo is athletic, boisterous, outgoing, and glib. The brothers dream of escaping from their domineering father to lead adventurous lives. Their paths diverge after they run away together to become soldiers. Mamo is forced to return home because of a health emergency; LaMamo continues his journey and becomes a mercenary, fighting alongside various rebel groups in Liberia and Guinea, and eventually working with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) before returning home.

Although Mamo’s disease prevents him from leaving the village, he escapes intellectually and emotionally from his father. He succeeds academically, becoming a history teacher in the local school. He embarks on a project to write a history of the village through interviewing its people. His project attracts the attention of village leaders who invite him to write a biography of the village chief. Close interaction with village leaders exposes Mamo to the corruption, bribery, and moral turpitude of those in power.

Meanwhile LaMamo travels to neighboring countries as a mercenary, joining factions fighting for African liberation. He keeps his brother apprised of his travels and activities by periodically sending him letters. These reveal LaMamo’s increasing disenchantment with wars, with the exploitation of children coerced into fighting, and with senseless killing and suffering of innocent civilians.

Through the lives of these twin brothers and the people they interact with, Habila shows a society riddled with corruption. A school that provides educational opportunities for village children is tossed around as a pawn between political factions and is eventually forced to close. The money raised for drilling new wells in draught-ridden areas is whittled away in the hands of corrupt politicians. The police crush riots through brutality, violence, and intimidation. Rebel leaders and their followers, ostensibly fighting for African liberation from the yoke of colonialism, rape and pillage at will. As a result of their separate experiences, the brothers become increasingly discouraged about the possibility of a better future.

Habila’s characters are realistically portrayed, especially his protagonist Mamo who emerges as a sensitive, conscientious individual determined to record the dignity and resilience of ordinary people in his village. The description of village life, inhabitants, traditions, and customs is rich in detail. Habila has woven an intricate tapestry that threads the recent history of Nigeria with the lives of twin boys, thereby expanding his vision to illustrate both the personal and political challenges facing a people.

 A powerful story, told in clear, succinct prose, with sensitivity and compassion.

 Highly recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Patrick Dillon

Ithaca by Patrick Dillon retells Homer’s Odyssey primarily through the eyes of Telemachus, the son of Odysseus.

The three-part novel opens with sixteen-year-old Telemachus struggling to assert himself in the face of suitors who bully, taunt, and ridicule him. He watches helplessly in despair as the suitors turn his home into a ramshackle free-for-all while gobbling up his inheritance. He decides to set out in search for news of his father. Part 1 concludes with Telemachus heading first to Pylos and then to Sparta with Nestor’s daughter, Polycaste.

Part 2 begins with Odysseus’ encounter with Nausicaa at Phaeacia, includes a narrative of his adventures after his departure from Troy, and ends with Odysseus’ arrival at Ithaca.

Part 3 re-focuses on Telemachus; his meeting with Odysseus; the killing of the suitors and their accomplices; the reunification of Penelope and Odysseus; and Telemachus’ rejection of the warrior lifestyle. It concludes with him leaving Ithaca intent on leading a quiet life with Polycaste on a remote island.

On the positive side, the novel is a quick and easy read, moving at a brisk pace with detailed descriptions. Some of the most moving lines describe the devastating physical and psychological impact of the war on its survivors—men with missing limbs and shattered psyches; women and children still grieving over the loss of loved ones. War is a decidedly unheroic enterprise, stripped of glory, turning men into monsters, and shattering lives in its wake.

Some character portrayals are interesting. Telemachus is plagued with self-doubt and frustration. Menelaus seethes with resentment at Helen. Helen is duplicitous and manipulative. Penelope is non-communicative and ineffectual. Odysseus is a broken old man, eaten up with guilt at his treatment of wife and child.

But . . .

Although an author can take some liberties in retelling a myth by fleshing out details and embellishing scenes, the novel has to at least be consistent with itself. Since this is a novel about Telemachus, the whole of part 2 was incongruous and a distraction. Odysseus recounting his adventures to the Phaeacians had nothing to do with Telemachus. He wasn’t even present at the time in either the epic or the novel. So why include it?

Furthermore, Dillon so seriously deviated from Homer’s epic that it brings to question the extent of his research and knowledge of the times. In the Homeric epic, when Nestor suggests to Telemachus he should seek news of his father from Menelaus in Sparta, he sends his son, Peisistratus, to accompany him. He does not send his daughter, which is what happens in this novel. No father at that time would send his unmarried daughter on a journey unless she were accompanied by an entourage of men for protection. He certainly wouldn’t send her off in the sole company of young man, especially since she is a princess whose virginity is perceived as a prized commodity.

Another serious deviation concerns Odysseus’ journey to the underworld. In Homer, he seeks direction from the blind prophet Tiresias. In the novel, he speaks with Laocoon, a Trojan priest. It makes no sense for Odysseus, a Greek, to seek advice from a Trojan priest, especially since this is the same priest who cautions the Trojans against bringing the infamous horse into their city. Why should Odysseus seek him let alone trust him?

Although showing strength in some areas, the novel as a whole suffers from glaring inaccuracies and fails to deliver on its potential.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Diane Setterfield

Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield opens with a ten-year-old William Bellman playing with three friends. The boys try to outdo each other at running, tree-climbing, and arm-wrestling. William takes out his catapult and brags he can hit a rook (crow) in a far-off tree. The boys are skeptical. Even William is skeptical. He makes a great show of selecting just the right stone. He aims and launches the stone, all the while hoping the bird will fly off before being hit. The bird doesn’t move. The stone hits its target. The bird falls on the ground, lifeless. Immediately, there is a noticeable change in the four boys, especially in William. He becomes feverish for several days, trying hard to suppress the memory. He almost succeeds.

This pivotal childhood event impacts the trajectory of William’s life. We follow his career as he becomes the manager of Bellman’s Mill and then its owner. He astonishes employees with his prodigious amount of energy. Constantly on the move, feverishly running from one project to another, William lives at an accelerated pace as if he is afraid to slow down, afraid to remember. All seems to be going well, but then friends and family start dying off, including his wife and all but one of his children. At each funeral he attends, William sees a tall, mysterious stranger dressed in black. He eventually confronts the stranger (“Mr. Black”) and thinks he has struck a bargain with him to keep his remaining child alive. Accordingly, he establishes Bellman & Black, a one-stop shop for every conceivable item dealing with the death industry.   

William’s success comes at a cost. As his frantic pace increases, he begins to suffer from dizzy spells and nausea. He neglects his daughter and friends, is haunted by guilt, but he never allows himself to pause and reflect. He only knows he must rush through each day at a frenzied pace while obsessively checking items off his to-do list.

As William tries desperately to appease Mr. Black by accumulating wealth for his “silent” partner, it becomes evident his refusal to confront his guilt has generated problems. Mr. Black is imaginary. He exists only in William’s mind as a manifestation of a suppressed memory. William learns too late that suppressed memories never disappear. They manifest in various forms, influencing behavior and actions in ways that are not necessarily rational. This is not a ghost story. It is a novel about actions which haunt us throughout our lives.

Although a quick and easy read, this novel is not as successful as Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale or Once Upon a River. Setterfield’s ability to evoke a haunting atmosphere through revealing details and suggestive phrases continues to impress. Her description of the structure and activities at the Bellman & Black emporium is particularly effective. The passages about rooks and their sporadic, haunting appearances throughout the novel provide an added dimension to the other-worldly atmosphere. But with the exception of William Bellman, the characters are not well developed and fall far short of the fully-fleshed out, interesting characters in Once Upon a River. The novel drags in certain parts and is repetitive in others. But on the whole, it is a compelling portrayal of possible consequences of a suppressed trauma.

Recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Mika Waltari

The Egyptian by Mika Waltari, translated by Naomi Walford, was an international best seller in the 1940s. The novel immerses the reader in the life and times of ancient Egypt during the reign of the rebel pharaoh Akhnaton. The story unfolds in the first-person narrative of Sinuhe, the personal physician to Akhnaton.

Born under mysterious circumstances, Sinuhe is adopted by a couple who shower him with love and support. His success as a student enables him to work his way up through the many layers of hierarchy until he becomes the personal physician to the pharaoh. As an intimate of the court and one who is privy to its secrets, he describes in vivid detail the palace intrigues, sexual liaisons, marriages, murders, and shifting political alliances.

At times, self-absorbed, arrogant, and cowardly; at times, heroic and generous, Sinuhe emerges as a conflicted soul, gravitating from one extreme to the other. He shows compassion by healing the poor and needy without demanding compensation. But when embroiled in palace politics, he commits murder and inflicts brutal revenge on his enemies. On the one hand, he sympathizes with and tries to propagate Akhnaton’s vision of the equality of all human beings under the one god; on the other hand, he is convinced of Akhnaton’s madness and responsibility for the breakdown of law and order in Egypt and its surrounding empire.

Waltari demonstrates his consummate skill as a writer by creating a compelling texture of ancient Egypt. His research is impressive. Egypt comes alive with its hustle and bustle, pungent odors, opulence, intense heat, noisy streets, graphic violence, wars, exploitation, territorial skirmishes, extremes in poverty and wealth, systemic brutality and oppression, rituals and mythology. Waltari’s re-creation of Crete with its bull dancers and of Babylon in all its ancient splendor are particularly memorable. Sinuhe’s diction sounds old world appropriate and sustains reader interest with its intricate, vivid details. There are many noteworthy phrases peppering the novel, one of which is the amusing reference to a birth in poverty as a birth “with dung between your toes.”

The characters are well-developed and believable. Their behavior is self-serving; their morality questionable. Some forge friendships with Sinuhe. Perhaps the most delightful relationship is that of Sinuhe with his one-eyed, self-aggrandizing slave, Kaptah. Kaptah’s droll comments, antics, and down-to-earth perspective ingratiate their way into Sinuhe’s heart until Sinuhe grants him his freedom and trusts him to manage his worldly assets. Kaptah proves to be loyal to his former master and an astute business man. He freely confesses to stealing from Sinuhe only what amounts to a reasonable amount. Their relationship endures, blossoming into a charming friendship of opposites.

The novel is rich in historical details, presenting a panoramic but bleak view of ancient Egypt during the time of Pharaoh Akhnaton. It brings to life a turbulent time in Egypt’s history, a time plagued with political intrigue and internal conflicts because a pharaoh defied an institutionalized belief system with its powerful infrastructure by insisting on the monotheistic worship of Aton as the one god.

Highly recommended as a well-researched, immersive, and vibrant work of historical fiction.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Ali Smith

Autumn by Ali Smith, shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, is the first book in her seasonal quartet. The book loosely revolves around an unusual friendship between Elisabeth and her long-term relationship with her elderly neighbor, Daniel Gluck.

Daniel is a charming companion and baby sitter for the young Elisabeth, never condescending, always respectful. He is learned, erudite, well-versed in literature and art, and an imaginative storyteller. He shares his knowledge with Elisabeth as if she were a kindred spirit, awakening her interest in art while challenging her to think critically. Theirs is a beautiful relationship, so it’s no surprise that Elisabeth continues to honor their friendship for decades.

The narrative jumps back and forth in time, gradually revealing portions of their backstories, and flashbacks to some of their decades’ old conversations and word games, all of which are an absolute delight. One passage may describe the initial meeting between Daniel and Elisabeth when she is in primary school; the next passage shows Elisabeth as a 32-year-old reading to Daniel, now 101 years old, living in a rest home for the elderly where he is either in a deep sleep or a coma. Elisabeth visits him weekly, posing as his granddaughter to gain access to his room to read to him.

Weaving in and out of the Daniel/Elisabeth relationship is Elisabeth’s relationship with her mother; references to Pauline Boty, the only female artist in the British Pop Art movement of the ‘60s; the aftermath of the contentious Brexit vote; dream sequences; stream of consciousness interludes; flashbacks; make-believe stories; and miscellaneous references to songs, literary works, and artists. It is a hodgepodge of frenzied activity, frequently without a segue or indication to alert the reader as to whether we have plunged into a dream sequence (Elisabeth’s or Daniels?), an event from the past (whose past?), or are listening to Elisabeth’s hilarious tangle with officious Post Office personnel in a bureaucratic nightmare. What holds this incoherent jumble together is Ali Smith’s extraordinary skill with words.

Ali Smith has a definite way with words. She can make them dance on the page. She can make them twist and turn, pirouette and summersault. Whether she addresses the subject of friendship, love, loyalty, bigotry, aging, the passage of time, politics of the day, political scandals of the past, sexual inequality, the media, cultural icons, and so on, she exhibits an infectious, unadulterated joy in playing with words. Her pace is energetic; her sentences, nimble; her language bursts with vitality even while critiquing political obfuscations and lies.

Autumn is the season of waning. The year is in decline as nature prepares for winter. Daniel Gluck, lying in a nursing home, is in the declining days of his life. England is undergoing a transformation as a result Brexit and will never be the same again. Autumn is followed by winter, a time when nature goes dormant. But as Percy Bysshe Shelley reminds us, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” If Ali Smith’s Autumn is an indication of what’s to come, her Winter, Spring, and Summer are sure to be treasures worth savoring.

 Highly recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Sinan Antoon; Trans. Jonathan Wright

The Book of Collateral Damage by Sinan Antoon, translated by Jonathan Wright, weaves together two narrative threads, each of which illustrates different aspects of the collateral damage caused by the Iraq war and occupation.

The novel opens with Iraqi-born Nameer, a future professor at Dartmouth College, returning to Baghdad in 2003 after an absence of a decade. While in Baghdad, he visits Al-Mutannabi Street, a street famous for its book shops, where he encounters the bookseller, Wadood Abdulkarim. Wadood shares with him his manuscript in which he catalogues the unacknowledged losses caused by the most recent war.  

The first thread chronicles Nameer’s journey upon his return to America. In many ways, his journey parallels that of the author, giving it the definite feel of an autobiography. From Dartmouth College, Nameer goes to New York University as an associate professor. He accumulates images and newspaper cuttings about Iraq for a novel he plans to write but is never able to begin. He struggles with PTSD, haunted by images and the faces of people he saw during his recent trip. Events, objects, and even the smell of certain foods transport him back to his childhood in Iraq. His depression and creative paralysis lead him to a therapist who encourages him to write as a form of therapy.

Periodically interspersed throughout Nameer’s narrative are excerpts (colloquies) from Wadood’s manuscript. These are fascinating vignettes of objects, plants, and animals, most of which come alive in the first-person point of view. Included among them is a Kashan carpet that once enjoyed the patter of children’s feet. A bomb drops on the home, silencing all who have huddled together on the carpet for protection. A tree thrives in the sun, bearing fruit. It describes its agony as its limbs are cut off, its wounded trunk injected with poison to suffocate its roots. What little remains burns when ash falls from the sky. A young boy gives his friend a stamp album for safe-keeping when he and his family are deported because of their ostensible Iranian heritage. The boy grows into manhood, treasuring the stamp album and faithfully adding to the collection. One day a missile breaks through the window pane of his apartment, setting all his belongings on fire. Add to this list a race-horse, a camera film, a wall, a cassette-tape, and many others. Each meets with a violent end.

The threads alternate between the losses catalogued in Wadood’s colloquy to Nameer’s struggle with his own internal demons as he recalls his personal past and the recent past of his country. The threads are so intertwined that the words become interchangeable the further the novel progresses. With news of Wadood’s death at the hands of a suicide bomber, Nameer decides to write his novel of collateral damage as both a tribute to honor Wadood and as a way to heal his fractured self. In part, therefore, this is a novel about an author’s struggle to write a novel that serves as a testament to the trauma of a nation.

By structuring his novel with two interlocking threads that feed off each other to accentuate the intensity of loss, Sinan Antoon has illustrated in a profoundly moving and poignant way the true cost of war. The cost should not be measured only by the loss of human life, potential, aspirations, and mental stability. It must also be measured by the devastation inflicted on the environment, on the destruction of valuable cultural artefacts, on homes that once sheltered families, on objects of aesthetic value, on spaces that hold significance, and on personal mementos wrapped in memories of better times. Each loss is felt deeply and illustrates the annihilation caused by war. All are victims of collateral damage.

Highly recommended for its powerful and sensitive evocation of the true cost of war.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Natalie Haynes

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes provides a unique and fresh look at the Trojan War by retelling it from an all-female perspective. With Homer’s Iliad and his Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and several classical Greek plays serving as her inspiration, Haynes gives voice to nearly two dozen females ranging from slaves, wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, nymphs, and goddesses.

With the exception of Calliope, the muse of poetry, who speaks in the first person, and Penelope whose voice is heard in the letters she sends to Odysseus, the narrative unfolds in the third person point of view. The perspective changes from one character to the next, with the narrative flashing forward and backward in time to reveal a character’s back story, and disclose the causes, duration, and aftermath of the war.

Haynes’ vivid imagery and diction bring to life the agony and trauma experienced by the Trojan women. We run alongside Creusa as she vainly struggles to find a viable escape from a city engulfed in flames. We hear Hecabe’s guttural cry when the Greeks drop the mangled body of her youngest son, Polydorus, at her feet. We watch Polyxena claw her face when she recognizes her brother’s corpse. We share Andromache’s anguish as she clutches her young son, pleading with the Greek soldiers not to wrest him from her arms to certain death. We feel Cassandra’s paralyzing helplessness as she predicts the future unfolding before her eyes only to have no one believe her. We huddle together with the Trojan women as each awaits her fate, whether it be to slavery or sacrificial death. We feel the festering of Clytemnestra’s anger toward Agamemnon as she plots to avenge her daughter’s death. And we listen in as Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena squabble like badly-behaved children to possess the golden apple.

For the most part, the characters are well developed, believable, and demonstrate great resilience and strength in the face of adversity. But a few are indistinguishable, speaking as they do with the same voice. Andromache and Cassandra are particularly strong and moving. The forever patient Penelope is somewhat insipid as she pleads for Odysseus to come home. Her letters serve as fillers, restating Odysseus’ adventures on his ten-year homeward trek after the war. A few characters make brief appearances in the form of short vignettes; others survive long after the end of the war.

Haynes injects the occasional note of humor into an otherwise traumatic event. Calliope as the muse of poetry takes funny jabs at the poet who pesters her for inspiration. She is determined to force his lens on women and to convince him their suffering and endurance is as heroic as that of the men who fought and died on the battlefield.

By shifting the lens of vision, by moving women from periphery to center, Natalie Haynes has made a significant contribution to feminist retellings of classical myths. Her story is imaginative; her words engaging. She has heard the song of the feminist muse and given voice to those whose voices have been muffled since the beginning of recorded history. How refreshing it is to finally hear their voices.

Highly recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Mariama Bâ; trans. Modupé Bodé-Thomas

Winner of the 1980 Noma Prize, So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ, translated by Modupé Bodé-Thomas, is in the form of a long letter written by one middle-aged Senegalese woman to another. A recently widowed Ramatoulaye writes to her childhood friend, Aissatou. The two share a similar fate in that their respective spouses took on second wives. But their reactions differ. Aissatou divorces her husband, raises her children, and makes a life for herself outside of Senegal. Ramatoulaye opts to stay in her village and endure the public humiliation of her husband taking on a second wife, a woman young enough to be their daughter.

Ramatoulaye eloquently reveals intimate details of her life. She falls in love with her future husband and marries him in spite of her mother’s reservations. They are happily married for over two decades when her husband takes on a second wife. Ramatoulaye is not prone to histrionics and maintains a calm, external demeanor when hearing the news even though she is shocked at the revelation.

Abandoned physically and financially by her husband, she shows her resilience and strength as she struggles to maintain the semblance of normalcy for herself and for her children. She lists the challenges she faces in paying bills and putting food on the table since her husband showered all his financial support on his extravagant new wife and her family. And she describes the difficulties of raising her brood of twelve children. But she harbors no bitterness toward her deceased husband whom she still loves.

One of the most endearing qualities that comes to the forefront in this novella is the relationship between the two friends. Theirs is a wonderful sisterhood of support and respect for each other’s choices. When Aissatou learns of Ramatoulaye’s hardship in finding adequate transportation, she buys a car for her friend to help ease her burden. And for her part, Ramatoulaye never criticizes her friend for choosing the path she did. Although they chose different paths, Ramatoulaye recognizes the choice one woman makes may not work for another. She supports a woman’s inviolable right to choose her own path and understands the pivotal role education plays in empowering women to exercise voice and choice. The novella ends on a beautiful note with Ramatalouye eagerly awaiting her friend’s visit to Senegal on the following day.

Ramatoulaye emerges as a compassionate, sensitive, intelligent, resourceful woman who has finally come into her own. She values her independence, gains strength as the novel progresses, and shocks her community by her repeated rejection of suitors seeking her hand in marriage after her husband’s death. Strong, dignified, empowered, and stoic, Ramatoulaye serves as a beacon of light for all women suffering injustice and oppression at the hands of men who exploit culture, tradition, or religion to gratify their selfish desires and to justify their abuse of women.

Highly recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Anthony Doerr

The 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, is a riveting tale of two young people whose lives intersect in the turmoil and devastation of World War II. The narrative unfolds in three separate threads that converge at the end of the novel.

The first thread involves Marie-Laure, a young French girl living in Paris with her father. Marie-Laure is blind. Her father fosters her independence by building a miniature model of their neighborhood so she can learn to navigate the streets on her own. As the Nazi invasion of France becomes immanent, Marie-Laure and her father escape to the coastal town of Saint-Malo to stay with her great-uncle. Her father, an employee of the Museum of Natural History, is given the museum’s most valuable jewel for safe-keeping—a large diamond supposedly endowed with magical properties.

The second thread involves Werner Pfennig, a young German boy who lives in an orphanage with his sister. Werner is a self-taught technician with an exceptional talent for building and fixing transmitters. He is recruited to the Hitler Youth and then sent to the battle front to determine the exact location of the transmitters used by the resistance.

The third thread involves a German officer dying of cancer with an obsession for locating this “magical” diamond because he believes it will cure him of his disease. After systematically chasing down all the clues as to its possible whereabouts, he ends up in the home of Marie-Laure’s great uncle, convinced the diamond is hidden there.

The narrative alternates between these three threads in flash forwards and flashbacks while simultaneously shifting locations. The sequence is not chronological—chapters switch between different characters and different years. This technique heightens the tension and sustains interest as one has to read the whole book to fit the pieces together chronologically. The tension in each thread gradually builds up until the climax when the three threads converge in the great uncle’s home. To accentuate the rapidity of movement, Doerr frequently writes short, clipped, well-crafted sentences; to generate a sense of immediacy, he uses the present tense.

Doerr’s prose is poetic; his imagery immersive; his research impressive. The rich, sensory details transport the reader to war time Europe where we breathe, taste, smell, touch, hear, and see the impact of war on cities and on lives. Rather than focusing on the big picture, Doerr chooses to focus his lens on the lights we cannot see—the impact of war on the lives of ordinary people, especially children. He gives voice to their experiences by illuminating what typically remains hidden in the shadows. And he does so in luminous prose that sizzles and sparkles on every page evoking the electrical currents in Werner Pfennig’s transmitters.

A remarkable achievement and highly recommended for all who love a good story told in poetic, immersive language by a master craftsman.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Daisy Johnson

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson is a modern re-telling of the Oedipus myth buried in twists and turns and interlocking threads. Set against the backdrop of the river and canals of Oxford, the novel weaves in and out of the past and present as it winds its way along the river’s murky waters.

The primary thread involves a now thirty-something Gretel on a hunt for her missing mother after years of estrangement. While searching for clues as to her mother’s possible whereabouts, she dredges up images from the past when she lived on a riverboat with her mother. She harbors a love/hate relationship for her mother—the secret language they shared; the bond they formed while living on the margins of society; and her mother’s eventual abandonment of her when she was a teenager.

There are several tributaries running off from this primary thread, one of which involves a teenager who has run away from home. Another involves Gretel eventually finding her mother and learning she now suffers from Alzheimer. Gretel struggles to cope with her mother’s forgetfulness and erratic behavior, as well as with her mother’s past actions when they sheltered the runaway teenager. And then there is the Bonak—either real or imagined—a mysterious creature lurking in the water or along the riverbank whose haunting presence hovers over the events.

The novel alternates between Gretel’s first-person point of view and a third person point of view. Shifts in time and location are signaled by chapter headings. In addition to the theme of parricide and incest, the novel borrows several elements from the Oedipus myth, including child abandonment, riddles, a dire prophesy, cryptic clues, mixed messages, surrogate families, family secrets, blindness, and mistaken identities, all of which lead to the inexorable conclusion. Tiresias is given a nod when Johnson plays with the concept of fluidity in gender identities and language. He speaks the truth but appears to speak in riddles. Gretel and her mother communicate in a secret language no one else understands. Fairy tale and folk tale elements are also apparent. The name Gretel echoes the fairy tale of the little girl and her brother trying to find home by following bread crumbs; the lives of the river people are steeped in folk tales and superstition.

A lot happens in this novel. At times the interplay of different narrative strands can get confusing, especially during the latter part of the novel. But Daisy Johnson is an accomplished writer. She has served a gripping tale with surprising twists and turns in language and imagery that electrifies. She explores the concepts of fate, free will, destiny, identity, and memory—what we remember and what we choose to forget. She takes us to a culture that lives on the margins of society in the river people, a culture with its own rules and methods of coping. But she is at her best when she conjures up vivid language that brings the omnipresent river and its surroundings to life in a haunting atmosphere laden with darkness, mystery, and fear of the unknown.

Highly recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Gerald Murnane

Border Districts by Gerald Murnane is in the form of an extended monologue with lengthy paragraphs uninterrupted by page breaks or chapter headings. There is no plot or story. Instead we are served a map of the narrator’s mind with its meanderings, reflections, detours, memories, digressions, and opinions. It is akin to stream of consciousness in that one seemingly random thought or image triggers a memory that sets the narrator down a winding path, the relevance of which may or may not be readily apparent to the reader. But we follow the narrator because his prose is hypnotic, his thoughts luminous, and because we are curious to see where he will take us next.

The narrator is an elderly gentleman, a grandfather, who has moved from a capital city to a quiet township near the border. He tells us he has done this to experience the freedom to record his “. . . image-history, which includes, of course, my speculations about such image-events.” And that is precisely what he does. He writes a report in which he records the images that have preoccupied his mind from childhood into old age and he considers if and how his reflections on those images have changed in the interim. If all this sounds somewhat bizarre, that is because it is.

The central image preoccupying his mind and one that recurs is of stained or colored glass windows. His focus is intense as he studies the colors, the shapes, and the fluctuating impact of light as it filters through the colored panes. He sees himself as “a student of colours and shades and hues and tints.” He is intent on looking at things sideways since “a glance or a sideways look often reveals more than a direct gaze . . .”

The narrator is painfully self-conscious, analytical, and deliberate in his writing, as in, for example, “I strayed a little in the previous two sentences” or, more typically, “While I was writing the previous two paragraphs . . .” He writes in the past tense and has a propensity to use the conditional construction in his sentences: “If only I had had . . . I would have had . . .” etc. He launches into elaborate scenarios where he imagines things that might have been. For example, while visiting a friend, he weaves an elaborate tale in which he envisions a marriage between his friend’s spinster aunt and her sweetheart returned from the war. He constructs their home in his imagination and even compares his childhood and schooling with that of the imaginary daughter adopted by the aunt and her sweetheart.

All this makes for curious reading. One wonders what he’s up to. And then a sentence toward the end of the book brings the entire work into focus. The narrator has taken a photograph of a colored glass window in his friend’s home. As he examines the photograph, he makes the following statement:

“ . . . a part of my seeing was investing the glass with qualities not inherent in it—qualities probably not apparent to any other observer and certainly not detectable by any sort of camera; that what I missed when I looked at the photographic prints was the meaning that I had previously read into the glass.”

In other words, Murnane does with images what many of us do with books. We can read the same book many times over and experience it differently with each reading depending on our life experiences at the time. If we are astute and deliberate readers, we can recall which passages in the book left an impact on us, when, how, and why. This exercise reveals as much about the reader as it does about the book. We might do it with the written word; Murnane does it with images. He imbues what he sees with meaning. His images of landscapes and colored glass are significant because they reveal the eye of the beholder, then and now.

Murnane has charted the landscape of his mind throughout the decades by using image-events as triggers. He explores the development of his mental state by gauging his reaction to visual stimuli. He has been doing this all along in the novel, but it is not until the end that the whole enterprise comes into clear focus.

An unusual novel in terms of structure, content, and theme. Highly recommended for those who enjoy reflective, digressive writing.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Jokha Alharthi; trans. by Marilyn Booth

The winner of the 2019 Man Booker International Prize, Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies paints a vivid portrait of Omani society as it grapples with the cultural and social changes precipitated by its transition into a modern society. The tension between late twentieth-century values and behaviors with those of the present is played out in the lives, marriages, and relationships of three generations of an affluent Omani family. Threaded throughout the novel are details about daily life and the interplay of folklore, traditional healing methods, and religion.

The narrative unfolds in a series of vignettes told by a third person omniscient narrator focusing each time on one of a dozen or so characters. These vignettes alternate with the first-person narrative of Abdullah, a young man damaged by his father’s abuse and his mother’s death under mysterious circumstances. The multiplicity of characters and perspectives would have been confusing had Alharthi not provided a family tree to show the relationships. This family tree is essential, especially in the early pages of the novel, until one becomes familiar with each character’s placement.

The primary focus is on three sisters. Mayya, the eldest, suppresses her desire for the man she loves by acquiescing to parental demands to marry Abdullah, a man she does not love. Asma, the second in line, is the reader in the family. She agrees to marry the man chosen for her because she perceives the marriage to be a means to an end—the end being the ability to pursue her education. Khawla, the youngest, is in love with her cousin, Nasir. She resists all offers of marriage, stubbornly insisting to wait for his return from Canada.

Alharthi’s scope is wide. In the character of Zarifa, we learn of her mother’s captivity into slavery, the treatment of slaves, and the aftermath of their eventual emancipation in the 1960s. In addition to the generational conflicts, we read about political upheavals and rebellions as Omanis struggle for independence. We watch the gradual erosion of a rigid patriarchal structure where male infidelities, spousal abuse, and child abuse are rampant, and where women are treated as possessions, and where young girls are kidnapped and forced into marriage. In the space of a few short generations, the society transitions. The slaves have been freed; political factions have reached an uneasy truce; women now have careers, make their own voting decisions in elections, choose their own spouses, and divorce them for their infidelities.

The narrative progresses through non-linear shifts in time. We dip in and out of the long ago past, the more recent past, and the present. We watch Zarifa as she leaves food for the djinn to ward off harm for Abdullah at his birth. Within a few pages, we listen in on a conversation between Abdullah and his now adult daughter. As we piece together the shifts in time and the different perspectives, the back story of each character falls into place and a clear picture emerges.

Highly recommended for its immersive nature and breadth of scope in depicting Oman’s gendered lives and different socio-economic classes as it transitions into a modern society.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s debut novel, A Pale View of Hills, is told in the first-person point of view of Etsuko, a Japanese woman living in the English countryside. It opens with her recalling a visit from her youngest daughter, Niki. During the course of Niki’s visit, we learn Etsuko’s eldest daughter, Keiko, hung herself. The conversation between mother and daughter is strained, the tension palpable as each tries to avoid discussing Keiko’s suicide. 

Niki’s visit prompts Etsuko to recall Sachiko and Mariko, a mother and daughter she befriended while living with her first husband in Nagasaki shortly after the end of the war. The narrative subsequently unfolds in two separate threads—Etsuko’s conversations with Niki during her visit at her home in England and her bourgeoning friendship with Sachiko and Mariko in Nagasaki. Etsuko alternates between the two threads, moving backward and forward in time and location as she does so. But the thrust of her narrative takes place in Nagasaki. As she gets deeper and deeper recalling her life in Nagasaki, we sense something sinister is happening although we can’t quite put our finger on it.

Etsuko and Niki hover around each other as if they are afraid of getting too close or of saying too much. Both are impacted by Keiko’s suicide. And both feel there is a disturbing presence in her vacant bedroom. But neither one is willing to discuss the issue openly. They talk in superficialities and avoid meaningful dialogue. The air between them bristles with tension by what is left unsaid.

Similarly, Etsuko’s relationship with Sachiko and Mariko is fraught with tension by what remains unspoken. Sachiko is a dysfunctional and irresponsible mother who fails to provide a stable environment for her daughter. And Mariko is a disturbed child who behaves erratically, enclosed in her own little world. Etsuko shows greater concern for the child’s well-being and safety than her own mother, but she never confronts Sachiko about her parental neglect. Instead, she concurs with every bit of nonsense Sachiko speaks, couching her response with politeness. The situation is unsettling as the child clearly manifests problematic behaviors.

Ishiguro captures the undercurrent of tension in both narrative threads. More often than not, the characters speak at each other instead of to each other. They give the impression they’re holding something back—that there is more on their minds than they care to reveal. As the novel progresses, what is said pales in significance to what remains unsaid. And what is unsaid is never disclosed. The final pages of the novel confirm the clues scattered throughout: Etsuko is unreliable as a narrator and is, conceivably, a traumatized, guilt-ridden individual. But even with that knowledge, we are left with more questions than answers as it is never made clear what happened, why it happened, and to whom did it happen.

It is a testament to Ishiguro’s consummate skill as a writer that he produced a seemingly straightforward novel in language that is deceptively simple but rich in an ambiguity that becomes fully apparent only in its conclusion. With a few choice words strategically located at the end, he turns the entire narrative on its head, opening it up to a variety of interpretations.

Highly recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Naguib Mahfouz; trans. Tagreid Abu-Hassabo

Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth paints a composite portrait of Akhenaten, also known as the “Sun King,” an Egyptian pharaoh credited with being the first monotheist. Written by Naguib Mahfouz, the winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, the novel is translated into English by Tagreid Abu-Hassabo.

Akhenaten’s portrait is revealed through a series of interviews conducted by Meriamun, the son of a high official in the Egyptian court. Armed with a letter of introduction from his father, Meriamun seeks individuals who knew Akhenaten to learn the truth about this mysterious pharaoh who was dubbed “the heretic pharaoh” by some and a wise and gentle pharaoh by others. Among those Meriamun interviews are a high priest of the established religion, Akhenaten’s mother, his in-laws, friends, physician, military leader, and body guard. He concludes his investigation by traveling to Akhenaten’s now deteriorating city and interviewing his wife, Nefertiti, a virtual prisoner in the palace.

Akhenaten’s claim to fame is his declaration that there is only one God and all should worship Him. Although he was initially willing to accept the presence of other gods, once he became a pharaoh, he set about trying to eradicate the worship of other gods by destroying their temples and erasing their names from monuments. His action was considered heresy, especially by those within the establishment who stood to profit financially from Egypt’s polytheistic culture.

Not surprisingly, the portrait of Akhenaten that emerges is multi-faceted. He was labeled a heretic, weak, effeminate, a mad man who posed a serious threat to the state, and a fool who believed in the power of love to overcome adversity. Others describe him as highly intelligent, spiritual, gentle, kind, compassionate toward the weak and poor, and a divinely inspired believer in the one God. Each perspective adds a subtle detail or nuance to the portrait. But what emerges from the prism of each interview reveals more about the interviewee than Akhenaten, himself. Ultimately and in many ways, the Sun King remains an enigmatic figure.

This is a quick and easy read with an interesting structure. It illustrates how prejudices and predilections can impact perceptions. Two individuals can view the same event or interact with the same individual and arrive at entirely different interpretations. Truth is never easy to ascertain. The novel also illustrates how an individual or a movement that dares to defy established norms is castigated by contemporaries and loved by others.

Recommended, especially for those interested in historical fiction about ancient Egypt.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Valeria Luiselli

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli consists of several threads woven intermittently throughout the narrative to form a complex tapestry. The narrative unfolds within the backdrop of a blended family’s road trip from New York to Apacheria, Arizona.  

The blended family consists of the narrator, her five-year old daughter, her husband, and his ten-year old son. The parents are archivists. The father documents the sounds along the way to capture an “inventory of echoes” of the land once inhabited by Apaches and, presumably, where their ghosts still reside. The mother, the narrator of the first half of the novel, focuses on documenting the harrowing journey and fate of migrant children entering the US to re-unite with family members.

Peppering the mother’s first-person narrative are the father’s stories of the heroism of the Apaches in their struggle against the Europeans, focusing on the life and death of Geronimo; intermittent news reports of migrant children held in detention centers and/or shuttled back across the border to an unknown fate; the desperate search for two sisters missing from a detention center; selections from the deeply moving Elegies for Lost Children about the traumatic journey of migrant children; her private musings on a wealth of subjects; her struggles with the apparent breakdown of her marriage; her children’s questions and interruptions; descriptions of the various locations and motels; her son’s Polaroids; and copious literary cross-references. The porous nature of her skin is evident as the rage and despair she feels at the fate of migrant children saturates her first-person narrative.

The second half of the book shifts to the first-person narrative of the son when he and his sister run away to search for the lost children. In the process, they replicate some of the experiences of migrant children. When the family is reunited, he presents the document of his experience to his mother to remind his little sister of their desert adventure. This section is gripping although the diction and thoughts may, at times, be too sophisticated for a ten-year old child, especially sections of a sentence that runs on breathlessly for twenty pages.

 Luiselli has written an ambitious, complex novel with the interlocking themes of the treatment and fate of migrant children; the nature of justice and equality; the challenges of parenting and marriage; the role of storytelling; and the role of the archivist, specifically, how to give voice to those whose voices have been lost forever. She blends the personal, the political, the historical, and the mythic with empathy and sensitivity.

This is a deeply moving novel with a complex structure and several intertwining threads. And there’s the rub. Luiselli may have crammed too much in the novel, thereby causing confusion and diluting some of its more salient threads. Nevertheless, it is highly recommended because of its expansive vision, deeply expressed emotions, exploration of relevant themes, technical skill, and the occasional brilliant passage.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Maria Semple

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple is an entertaining, light-hearted novel with a cast of eccentric and quirky characters.

The narrative unfolds through a series of emails, police reports, school announcements, magazine articles, connecting fillers, etc. compiled by Bee, Bernadette’s fifteen-year-old daughter, after her mother’s disappearance. The switching back and forth between the different formats energizes the narrative and gives it a hurried pace. Characters rush in and out; the format changes at dizzying speeds; the Russian Mafia attempts identity theft; the local police and FBI are involved; Bernadette disappears mysteriously; her husband and daughter hunt her down. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This hodge podge of frenzied activities gives the novel almost a slap-stick, fast-paced sitcom quality.

The speed at which the novel moves and the shifting format means there is little time or space for character development. The characters are, in fact, flat caricatures. Elgie, Bernadette’s husband, is a genius at Microsoft. He rides a bike, takes his shoes off when he gets to work, wears headphones to tune people out, and is treated with a mixture of reverence and fear by colleagues. Bernadette is ostensibly a genius as well as a scatterbrain. A former architect and recipient of the MacArthur genius grant, she exhibits anti-social behavior, antagonizes the parents of children at Bee’s school, and shuffles around the house strategically placing pots and pans to catch the rain leaking from the roof. Bee is a precocious fifteen-year-old who thinks it’s perfectly normal to live in a home with weeds pushing their way through broken floor boards, with a mother who is a scatterbrain, and with a father who is virtually absent.

The characters are unrealistic and set up for ridicule. Bernadette’s zany antics are laughable, but at the same time, we are supposed to find her endearing and loveable. She’s not. The only positive quality about her is the unconditional love she has for her daughter. Bee emerges as the most believable character. But considering the serious health issues she had to overcome as a child and her mother’s crazy antics, it’s amazing she isn’t damaged.

Maria Semple knows how to write a light-hearted, entertaining novel that sustains reader interest as she hurtles us from one page to the next. But her characters are parodies, her plot unrealistic, her treatment of weighty subjects superficial, and her conclusion inconclusive.

Recommended with reservations.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Jose Eduardo Agualusa; Trans. Daniel Hahn

Winner of the 2017 Dublin International Literary Award and shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa, translated by Daniel Hahn, tells the story of the 1970s Angolan war for independence and its aftermath.

The story unfolds by patching together a series of vignettes, snippets of diaries, poems, snapshots of events, characters who participate in the mayhem and those who avoid it, the back stories of each character, and their interlocking threads. The narrative alternates between first person and third person.

The war is seen through the eyes of several characters, primarily through the eyes of Ludo, a victim of rape who suffers from agoraphobia. At the onset of civil turmoil, Ludo walls herself up in her apartment. Living in total isolation for nearly 30 years, she survives by restricting her diet, growing her own fruits and vegetables, and consuming the occasional pigeon she has killed. The events outside her apartment are experienced at a distance through hurried snatches and glimpses: demonstrations, people chased by mobs and shoved into vans, corpses abandoned on the roadside, residents in neighboring buildings, and gangs of young men with guns roaming the streets. She hears gunshots and listens to the radio. She records what she sees, what she thinks, and what she feels in her diaries, and when she runs out of paper, she writes on the walls.

Weaving in and out of Ludo’s narrative are the stories of characters who experience the events from differing vantage points. Among them are a former prisoner who survived torture, a security official who tortured him, a young boy living off the streets, and a former orderly at the hospital. Their lives intersect in a tangled web that is gradually revealed as the events unfold. All the characters converge in Ludo’s apartment at the novel’s conclusion.

For the most part, the prose is straightforward and concise, but occasionally, a line will jump out at you for its sheer lyricism and beauty. The format is unusual. Each chapter is introduced with a telling, succinct phrase. Chapter lengths vary from a few short lines to several pages. The format reinforces the episodic nature of the narrative—from short vignettes to descriptions of longer episodes. The focus is not on the tumultuous events but on the impact they have on individual lives. The characters are caught up in circumstances beyond their control. They struggle to survive amid the horror and brutality. Some do it by physically hiding while others disengage psychologically. But all lapse into some form of oblivion or a yearning for oblivion as a means of coping.

The episodic nature of the narrative with snapshots here, glimpses there, and interlocking threads widens the scope but provides little depth to the events or characters. What emerges from this unusual format is a panoramic view of a civil war and its impact on the lives of individuals. The fleeting glimpses barely skim the surface of character development. But this may be intentional as it opens the possibility that the characters are not intended to be well-rounded and unique. Their experiences and forays into oblivion transcend the individualistic. Instead, they are generic and speak to the universal experience of all who have lived through the turmoil of a civil war and who wish to bury nightmare memories deep in the shadows of oblivion.

Highly recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Angela Davis

Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement by Angela Davis is a collection of interviews with and speeches by Angela Davis over a two-year period from February 2013 to June 2015.

With passion and conviction, Davis argues that the struggle for freedom is inextricably intertwined with all ongoing struggles throughout the world. As examples, she highlights the connections between the training and militarization of police in Israel with the training and militarization of police in the US and in other parts of the world. She draws comparisons between Ferguson and the Palestinian struggle in the occupied territories. She critiques the prison industrial complex, perceiving it as an extension of slavery. She argues that social change does not come about because of the actions of one individual but rather through robust, collective social movements. She credits the Black female domestic workers for their pivotal role in the 1955 Montgomery bus boycotts. And she sums up her underlying premise by saying, “The greatest challenge facing us as we attempt to forge international solidarities and connections across national borders is an understanding of what feminists often call ‘intersectionality.’ Not so much intersectionality of identities, but intersectionality of struggles.”

This is a powerful collection of speeches and interviews. Davis’ arguments are perceptive and persuasive. Since the speeches were given at different times and in different locations, there is some repetition of her main ideas. But these reiterations serve to illustrate her unflinching resolve to articulate and illustrate the intersectionality of global struggles and the collective action needed to address them.

Davis challenges us to think deeper and broader and to reject facile solutions to complex problems. She urges us to unearth root causes and to recognize the interconnectedness of the various global struggles for freedom.

Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Bernice L. McFadden

Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden tells the story of Abeo Kata, a young girl in Ukemby, a fictitious country in Africa. Although Ukemby cannot be found on a map, the description of Abeo’s ritual servitude, known as trokosi, whereby children are abandoned in a religious shrine to atone for ancestral crimes, is both realistic and heart-wrenching.

Abeo is born into an affluent, loving family. When her father falls on hard times and the family experiences a series of calamities, Abeo’s father acquiesces to his mother’s demands and abandons Abeo in a religious shrine in the hope of turning the tide against his misfortunes by appeasing the gods. Abeo is nine years old at the time. She spends the next fifteen years as a virtual slave to the priest and his son. Like other young girls in the shrine, she is forced to work in the fields, endures physical and mental abuse, harassment, starvation, and sexual assault. Eventually rescued, she moves to America where she is embraced in a cocoon of love and support, undergoes healing, and makes a life for herself.

McFadden tells Abeo’s story in sparse, economical prose. Things happen, things change, lives are turned upside down in the space of a paragraph. We move quickly through the different stages of Abeo’s life in matter of fact sentences that lack adornment. McFadden carefully balances the harrowing details with distance so the reader is not mired in the horror. The technique is effective since the horror she describes is sufficiently disturbing that it needs no embellishment. Some of her most effective sentences simply declare a girl’s age after she has witnessed or experienced a horrific example of abuse.

McFadden is to be commended for shedding light on the practice of ritual servitude and for doing so without lapsing into melodramatic, sentimental prose. However, Abeo’s fate at the end of the novel veers toward the cliché and improbable. Here is a woman who has supposedly been so traumatized by her experience that she becomes catatonic and is temporarily rendered speechless. She recovers gradually by watching The Wizard of Oz, a movie she remembers from her childhood. And while in America, she learns to trust and to find healing in a romantic and sexual relationship with a man. She is finally able to transcend her past when she has a dream of stabbing her abuser.

In reality, recovery for a traumatized individual is not that simple. It is a long, complex process which may take years and seldom occurs in a forward trajectory. Continuous spurts of progress and relapses are the norm, especially for victims of child sexual assault. Survivors are frequently unable to engage in loving relationships until after healing has occurred, not before. It is understandable that McFadden wanted to conclude her novel on an uplifting note, but in terms of the terror Abeo endured for fifteen years, the speed of her recovery and its very nature stretches the truth.

Recommended in spite of an improbable conclusion to what was otherwise an engaging, well-written novel shedding light on a brutal practice.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Linda Grant De Pauw

Battle Cries and Lullabies: Women in War from Prehistory to the Present by Linda Grant De Pauw is a sweeping overview of the multiple roles of women in war. De Pauw chronicles the various functions women performed in war: as spectators watching from the sidelines; as cheer leaders urging men into battle; as warrior queens leading the charge against the enemy; as laundresses; as nurses; as prostitutes; as camp followers; as baggage carriers; as spies; as wives; as mothers; and as soldiers sometimes disguised as men whose real identity was not revealed until they were wounded or their bodies were strewn on the battlefield.

A few recurring themes emerge from this survey. The first is that women are as capable as men of engaging in brutality, torture, bodily dismemberment, etc. on the battle field as are men. The second theme is that women are eager to pick up arms when it is a case of having to defend their homes and families. When the battle is about conquering land or colonizing a people, women are more likely to participate as nurses near the front lines than as battle-hardened warriors.

As De Pauw sketches women’s participation in war from one conflict to another, she includes inspiring stories of females who were brilliant war strategists, leaders, and many others who showed true bravery, heroism, courage, and compassion in the bloody carnage of the battlefield.

Because of the wide scope of the survey covering several thousand years, the book can offer only a cursory glance at women’s role in some of the numerous conflicts in history. The many gaps and paucity of recorded documentation of women’s role in warfare means De Pauw had to rely heavily on sketchy evidence, hearsay, second-hand reports, speculation, and anecdotes for much of the book. Documented evidence is more substantial beginning with the 19th Century. The 50 pages of footnotes and nearly 30 pages of bibliography make available sources for anyone interested in exploring the topic in greater depth.

As De Pauw concedes in her introduction, her work is a starting point, an invitation for further research. She is to be commended for attempting a broad survey of this nature, for highlighting gaps in our knowledge, and for her extensive compilation of available documentation on the subject.

Recommended.