I’m on holiday this week (and was last week too) so have been taking the opportunity to do even more reading than usual – while also catching up with friends, family, gardens and various Waterstones stores around the country. We’ve been to a 50th birthday bash where there was a hog-roast and Rob joined in with the band, met an old schoolmate who I’ve not seen for nearly 40 years and seen virtually my entire family for a slap-up Sunday lunch at my Mum’s. There is nothing as good as a slap-up Sunday lunch at my mum’s….We’ve also been put to work in my sister’s allotment and Mum’s garden (so we have been earning all the great food) and done parkruns in Devon and Essex. I have also been working on a Twitter project which I call #booksellerontour – photos of me from Waterstones (and occasionally other bookshops) that we come across – I’ve done at least 5 in the last week and am hoping for a record-breaking three in two days when we go on to our final county….In the spirit of all this journeying and exploration of other cultures (well, I did try my cream teas in both the Cornish and Devonian styles – which surely counts as virtually anthropological experimentation) I thought I’d round up some books I’ve read recently which reflect cultures other than the one I was brought up in*.
The Bird King – G Willow Wilson
I was a bit blown away by the first book I read by this author, a glorious blend of Middle-Eastern mythology, politics and techno-culture, so I was keen to see if this one was as good. While it doesn’t have exactly the same blend of ancient magic and modern danger it does have some similarities and, even more excitingly for me, it also has as element of historical fiction. Fatima is a favourite courtesan in the court of the last Sultan of Granada. She flees the Alhambra with her friend Hassan, whose maps can change the shape of reality, and they are closely followed by agents of the Spanish Inquisition. At this point the fantasy elements of the plot take over – although the dangers of being caught by their pursuers is always very real – with Hassan’s uncanny maps and a Djinn, Vikram, who accompanies them on their journey.
The main message I took from the book was that any decent society needs to be accepting of everyone, no matter what their gender, sexuality, religion or nationality. But the real glory of it is the way it is told – full of detail, texture and colour – this book is like the Islamic mosaics of the Alhambra Palace itself: complex, engrossing and beautifully satisfying.
The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die – Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay (translated Arunava Sinha)
This is a short and punchy novella set in India which shows the women in an increasing amount of control. Somlata marries into a prestigious Bengali family but soon discovers that her husband (and none of the other men) have any idea of how to live in the current era rather than wallowing in their past glories. None of them work – or would ever consider working – and the whole family lives on the sale of land and gold jewellery (the women’s dowries…). When maiden aunt (the family member they all seem to have to obey) Pishima dies she seems to decide to haunt Somlata – although she does reveal the whereabouts of a hidden jewellery box – and, possibly, even become reborn in Somlata’s daughter, Boshon. Somlata, meanwhile, sets about using the gold she has been entrusted with to set up a business which will give the family both an income and, more importantly, a work-ethic.
This book shows an interesting development in the lives of women in a traditional society. Pishima, a child bride widowed before she was even a wife, has no power outside the family but controls them through sheer bloody-mindedness and the rumours of her mysterious horde of gold; Somlata, from a less ‘worthy’ family, is a quiet force of change bringing the family into a much more modern world where entrepreneurism and hard work are more useful than a proud family name. Boshon, finally, is a thoroughly modern girl who is determined to make her own way in the world without the need for a man. This book is short in length but opens up a whole world of thought.
Unmarriageable – Soniah Kamal
It is a truth universally acknowledged that authors just can’t resist the urge to update the story of Pride and Prejudice. With zombies, with added chardonnay, moved to modern day Cincinnati – there are plenty to choose from and quite a few transfer the story to either a South Asian setting or community. I’ve read a lot of these retellings but I think Kamal’s is the best I’ve read so far. The connections with the original – names, relationships and so on – are kept but given a twist which is both contemporary (30 is a far more likely age for a modern Muslim girl to worry about being left on the shelf than 21) and in keeping with the culture of Pakistan (huge weddings, for example). In fact, although this is a thoroughly modern update I was reminded of how many things we think of as being typical of South Asian cultures – like arranged marriages and the importance of a young woman’s virtue – are pure Austen.
The Binat family has five daughters and we follow the lives of Alys and Jena in particular. They teach English at a girl’s school in a small Pakistani city – they teach the literature of Empire to girls who will, in many cases, never finish their education because they prefer to marry to cement their place in society – and are estranged from the wealthy side of their family. This allow us to see, even from the start of the book, that Kamal, like Austen before her, not only understands the world she lives in but understands the necessity of pointing out its faults and hypocrisies. Like the original we see all the main characters develop, show their good and bad sides and then either overcome them (Alys, Darsee, Mr Binat, for example) or totally live up to them (Wickaam and Lady) but some of the more minor ones are, in my opinion, made even stronger than they were in the original. The Lady Catherine equivilent is equally vile but the Anne de Bourgh one is given much more to do and I loved Sherry (the Asian Charlotte Lucas) – even more than I did the original.
All in all this is one of the best retellings of any classic novel I’ve ever read. My only niggle would be that why didn’t characters who all knew and loved Pride and Prejudice see how close their own names were to the Austen originals?
Gods of Jade and Shadow – Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Finally, another piece of historical fantasy but this time set in Mexico in the late 1920s. For some this is the jazz age but not for Casiopea Tun: she and her widowed mother live with her maternal grandfather who rules over the whole extended family. Although nothing is more important than family to him it is only his grandson who shares any of his power: the women (and all the rest of his blood relatives are women) are, well, just women and Casiopea is also the daughter of a native Mexican man rather than being of ‘pure’ Hispanic origin. So far, so ‘Jazz Age, Mexican Cinderella’, but then the mythological elements of the plot burst out when – through a complicated set of circumstances – Casiopea releases one of the twin Mayan gods of death. Like you do…She and Hun-Kame, the god, are tied together by blood and bone and will both perish if they are unable to overthrow Hun-Kame’s twin who has usurped his role as god of the underworld.
This is a great big sweeping book which covers Mayan myth and folklore (or which, it turns out, I knew very little), the place of women in early twentieth century Mexican society and so much more. There is adventure, danger, romance and betrayal and some excellent characters. Casiopea is no shrinking violet – even when she is treated as a drudge she refuses to feel as if she deserves less of a future than her cousin – and although she physically weakens through the book she is a wonderfully strong and determined young woman. Hun-Kame begins as a totally god-like being with no concept of what life is like for humans but, as he spends longer with Casiopea and their shared blood and bone, he begins to develop a much more human side. But, when the end approaches, he has to choose between the two worlds.
Phew. That was quite a whistle-stop tour of cultures – from Moorish Spain to Mexico via the Indian sub-continent. A little like my recent tour of Waterstones stores, perhaps….
*Deepest Essex. Which I’m pretty sure counts as its own culture…