Sometimes I like to read books purely for fun or relaxation. When I was at University I read an awful lot of Mills and Boon romances – as a sort of sorbet to all the Shakespeare, Dante and revenge tragedy – and sometimes that is just what I need. At other times, however, I enjoy being challenged by what I read and to experience, through books, the pains and joys, the traumas and adventures of others. Many of the books I enjoy the most, and the ones I love to recommend to customers, are ones that scared me, made me cry or laugh and made me feel. These are not always comfortable feelings but they certainly remind you that you are alive. Some of the most illuminating stories are those that involve children – maybe because we have all been children at some point or maybe because there is a natural inclination to try to protect the young. Of course, sometimes, the child protagonists are the most fascinating – which they certainly are in Mick Kitson’s Sal.
Sal and her little sister Peppa are running away. They are running from a life lived with their drunken mother and her boyfriend Robert. They are running from what Robert was doing to 13-year-old Sal and they are running from what Sal did to Robert when he told her that, at 10, Peppa was old enough for him to be interested in too. They are going to survive too, because Sal has planned meticulously – buying the equipment and clothing they’ll need with some of Robert’s collection of stolen credit cards and has made a thorough study of survival techniques on YouTube – and because she is driven by a powerful urge to protect her sister. As the girls settle in to this life we see glimpses of what their life had been like – Sal being the one who made sure both her sister and mother were fed and protected, the difficulties of having an alcoholic mother and the fear of the family being split up if their situation were known to the authorities. What shines through is both this fear – which Robert, in particular, used to his advantage with Sal – and the girls’ long term plan to be reunited with their mother. It is a reminder of how young Sal and Peppa are that they see this reunited life as taking place in the Scottish wilderness where they have escaped to.
This is book full of wonderful characters – the two girls are very different but both are engaging – and, it turns out, the family is not as isolated as they thought they were. So, alongside the awful past, we do see a hope for a better future. However, I worry about Sal’s future. Her feelings towards her mother and sister are warm, fierce and protective and she shows fondness for some of the people who help her but her account of her own emotional reactions are oddly stunted. It was heart-breaking to think of a child that young having to live through such awful experiences: it was chilling to hear her speak of them so dispassionately.
Lidia Yuknavitch is not an author I’ve come across before. Considering she writes feminist speculative fiction with a strongly literary feel this should probably come as no surprise – there are many excellent writers in genre fiction but most of the ones that make the shelves are male and not looking to write ‘literature’ just a good story. They probably form part of a trilogy at the very least – and a series that gets into double figures is not unusual – but I don’t think many of them pack quite so much into less than 300 pages.
The basic premise of the book is that the human race is pretty much doomed. Earth is a blasted wasteland after an environmental catastrophe ends a long and bitter global war. The rich and powerful now live in a space facility known as CIEL and fritter away their time inscribing their own bodies with something like a cross between tattoos and self-harm. The survivors of humanity have become, somehow, pale, hairless and without any sexual characteristics – sexual acts themselves have become punishable offences but the body adornments they favour are usually erotic tales. The most powerful figure on CIEL is Jean de Men – who seems to be leading a bloodthirsty cult – and his nemesis is Joan, a young girl, originally from France when such a place existed, who seems to hear voices and has strange powers over the Earth itself. Much is made of the parallels with the historical figure of Joan of Arc and her fate seems to be much the same as this Joan is burnt to death. Or possibly not, according to her faithful followers both on Earth and CIEL.
This wasn’t an easy read. It is very literary in tone, with very strong language used throughout, and is definitely speculative rather than sci-fi. The reasons for mankind’s transformation isn’t explained, nor are Joan’s powers, but the story and language are gripping. Worth persisting with.
I started with African literature many years ago. In Sixth Form I was studying for an International Baccalaureate rather than A Levels and our English Literature course focussed on world literature (in translation) so I was studying Dostoevsky, Moliere and Achebe when I was 16. (I also studied World History rather than British – French Revolution, Unification of Italy and the Causes, Practices and Effects of War rather than dates of Corn Laws and Prime Ministers. I know nothing about Gladstone but remember the Sanjak of Novi Pazar. Ho hum). Anyway, my enjoyment of literature from around the globe continued at University – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Dante and Monkey by Wu Ch’êng-ên – and is still with me today. You’ll know my love of quirky Scandinavian stories, Korean animal fables and philosophical French romances but my fascination with fiction from African writers also continues.
My latest is Taduno’s Song by Nigerian author Odafe Atogun and my first thought was that he, like me, may have read Marquez at a formative age. Taduno, in exile from Nigeria, receives a letter from his girlfriend which encourages him to return home. There are hints of oppression and the knowledge that Lela loves and misses him and, curiously, the fact that the letter reaches him with just his name, Taduno, in an unspecified foreign country. Add this to the fact that when Taduno returns to Lagos he finds that although the government is still afraid of him as a charismatic singer opposed to their regime no-one can recall his name or what he looks like. Only his voice would have reminded them but the brutal beating which led him to flee Nigeria three months earlier has destroyed that. So far my initial thoughts were that this was a take on magical realism but then the story also took up so many of the political undertones which are also typical of Marquez. The magic and the dark political times continue as Taduno tries to rediscover his voice and rescue Lela from prison.
The cover of this book reminds me of Woody Guthrie and his ‘this machine kills fascists’ message which he placed on his guitar in 1941. I spent much of this book agonizing, along with Taduno, as he has to choose between his countrymen and the woman he loves.