Rather somber reading for February: I must find some laugh-out-loud reading this coming month…
The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, by M.G.Vassanji (2003). Vikram Lall comes of age in pre-independence 1950s Kenya, the grandson of an Indian railroad worker trying to find an identity and life between the Kenyans and the British. It’s a story of childhood, fear (Mau Mau), politicians and corruption as Vic becomes a fixer and exile. It’s well-written and I believe this is a better novel than Dust (but then again there’s a lot to be said for the “die-hard” in-your-face approach of Mukoma Wa Ngugi’s Nairobi Heat and Black Star Nairobi both made to measure action movie scripts too). But killing off the first-person narrator? I remember being told off for doing that at school. A poor ending but Helon Habila’s review captures the novel well.
The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai (2006). Another great novel. It’s a sobering commentary on turn-of-the-century experience of people in two continents – more often than not one of humiliation – from the unseen workers in Manhattan to a lost village under the Himalayas. The novel is centred on the lives of a small household circle, but it focuses on dispossession, abasement, the loss of opportunity, dignity and justice (the font of fundamentalism and terrorism) from which monopoly finance capitalism offers limited futures.
State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett (2011) & In the Heart of the Amazon Forest (Penguin Great Journeys No.11, 2007, abridged version of The Naturalist on the River Amazon, Walter Harry Bates, published in 1863). Reviewed here for Forest Novels.
The Book of Daniel, E.L.Doctorow (1971). I really should have read this novel ages ago, somehow Doctorow slipped off the radar. This unsentimental novel is narrated by the scarred son of communist sympathiser-activist parents (based upon Julius and Ethel Rosenberg,who were tried and then electrocuted in 1953 at the height of cold war hysteria for allegedly passing atomic secrets to the Russians) and it evokes the communist scares of the late-40s and early-50s with the US of the late-60s (it was written during some of the bitterest anti-war and pro-civil rights debates in the US).
A fragment from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” prefaces the novel, and is perhaps, the key to its morality.
I play not marches for accepted victors only, I play marches for conquer’d and slain persons.
There are many of the “conquer’d and slain” in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2004). Just a phenomenal novel. For once the publicity blurb on the covers is right. I’m going to have to re-read this one very soon. Best read of the year so far.