Some people like books to sit quietly in their genre. If it is a spy thriller it should be thrillery, but not contain elements of fantasy; historical novels shouldn’t be set in space; hard-boiled crime should not contain chapters with descriptions of cute kittens (unless, of course, they are the ones being hard-boiled….). I don’t mind a bit of a mash-up – post-apocalyptic love stories? historical thrillers? Bring it on….As Tom Stoppard assures us, all stories have a little bit of romance, death and eloquence. I’m particularly fond of a bit of quirkiness drifting into my reading – although strictly speaking I should call it by its Sunday name, Magical Realism…
In The Bedlam Stacks Natasha Pulley brings us to a world which is undoubtedly real – the East India Company has become the India Office, malaria is still hampering Britain’s ambitions in the East and Peru has banned the export of the seeds or saplings of the trees whose bark supplies life-saving quinine. The main character, Merrick Tremayne, is a gardener/botanist who has worked as an opium smuggler for the East India Company during the Opium Wars with China is the perfect person to send in to try and succeed where others have failed. Tremayne, however, was seriously injured during his last mission and is living on his family’s dilapidated Cornish estate. He is on the point of taking a job as a curate when he is called to travel to Peru, accompanied by his good friend Clem and his wife Minna. There they find themselves in a world which is ruled by cartels controlling the sale of cinchona (the tree from which quinine is derived) but also superstition, religion and the mysterious geography of the region. This, of course, is where the magical part of the story happens. Living statues, exploding trees, a mysterious community built up from children with disabilities left there by the inhabitants of other villages deep in the forbidden forests, not to mention a key character, Raphael, the village priest who seems to suffer from a strange condition.
I’ve often enjoyed books which feature magic realism (or quirkiness, as I insist on calling it – it sounds so much less daunting and lit-crit-like) and I enjoy good historical fiction. This, I think, is one of the first times I’ve been able to enjoy them together – I have to say it is a combination I will try again in future. In fact, I think I may have to go back to Pulley’s previous book, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, which seems to involve at least one character from Bedlam Stacks…(my to-read pile is never going to get any smaller, is it?)
Magical Realism seems to be one of those styles of writing which really divides people. I managed to totally split our shop book group down the middle when I got them to read One Hundred Years of Solitude (and when I say ‘down the middle’ I really mean that one or two agreed with me and enjoyed it – the rest found it odd and irritating) but it is a genre I generally enjoy. It was, however, not the genre I was expecting when I picked up Mohsin Hamid’s latest. His previous works have been experimental in their form so I guess the surprise was that Hamid was working within an existing format – it is no surprise, however, to find that he does it very well. In fact I checked out the main characteristics of the genre and I reckon he has ticked most of them…
Nadia and Saeed are young people in an unnamed city (my feeling is that it is based on Syria or somewhere similar in the area but that feeling would probably change with whatever war was in the news…) who, like young people the world over, meet and begin to develop a relationship. This is dramatically intensified when simmering unrest develops into a civil war, cutting off normal means of communication. Nadia is passionate and impulsive; Saeed thoughtful and more socially/religiously conservative but they are sure they love each other. Probably. When the situation in their home city worsens further they decide to escape.
So far this doesn’t sound very ‘magical’. The realism of the unrest/civil war/atrocities is, well, very very real. The deaths, most of which seem to be civilians who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and described with almost emotionless brutality and the day-to-day problems faced by those caught up in such conflicts are also covered in dispassionate depth. I think this feeling of disconnectedness was the first hint for me of what was to come so when the method of escape being used came up I was ready to accept it. Doors. Black doors. Which lead to other cities, other lives and other possibilities.They don’t all lead to lives of luxury – the ones heading to the affluent West tend to be heavily guarded – but Nadia and Saeed move gradually westwards, through the Greek Islands and London before ending up in California. Of course, realism is still a factor, so when people move via these doors they still meet the same problems refugees face in our own reality: prejudice, poverty, political manipulation. Nadia and Saeed face the fact that their relationship was formed in an almost unreal situation and, now they are halfway round the world from home, they have to find out if it has any future.
I’m not sure if I should class this book as speculative fiction, magical realism or literary fiction. It is all three. It is also a fascinating study of what it could be like to be displaced and how the world could react to an increasing influx of refugees to the West. It is beautiful and scary and well worth a read.
I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before but I used to live in Durham. I worked both there and in Newcastle and would happily spend my days off exploring the bits of the coast you can reach via the Metro network. This means I now have quite a weakness for books and stories set in the North-East (and always make an effort to watch the Great North Run on the tv – although, since Rob is running it this year I will also hopefully get my first real life view too). I’m even considering a box-set of Byker Grove…Anyway, I do find myself gravitating towards books with a Tyneside setting and then, at other times, it creeps up on me. I loved the chapters of the Mirror World of Melody Black where the main character rebuilds her life on Lindisfarne – which I didn’t expect until it happened – and now I find I have picked up another books which features the glorious North-East coastline.
Chloe Daykin doesn’t come right out at the start of the book and say that the waters her main character, Billy, swims in are the chilly ones of the North Sea but it becomes clear that they are. But even before that point I was captivated by Billy and his family. His Dad is loving and funny (even if all his jokes are definitely in the ‘awful dad joke’ category), his Mum is caring and warm. The problem is that his Mum is loving, warm and suffering with a mysterious illness which means she spends a lot of her time in bed. School contains bullies but no actual friends until a new boy, budding magician Jamie, joins his class – the only thing that seems to keep Billy grounded is swimming. Grounded, that is, until a mackerel swims right up to him and says his name…
I don’t really want to say much else about the plot – there are plenty of developments but they are not very easily explained. This is a story full of wonder and magic – the fact that Billy’s invisible friend is David Attenborough is part of the charm of this book – but it doesn’t shy away from difficult issues. Billy has to learn how to deal with the often difficult and confusing world of school and with his Mum’s illness – swimming with a shoal of fish may not seem the best way to achieve this but, with twists of language and some interesting new friendships, anything is possible. I loved the way the way that the magical and the real were woven round each other and, in particular, I found the ending very satisfying. It is a happy ending because, by that point, Billy feels happier and more confident about his situation but it doesn’t solve all the problems. It just shows that, with love, friendship and self-belief we can cope with so much more than we think we can.
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.