In this week's first edition of Book Club Fridays, Melanie reviews the novels in the running for the 2020 Booker Prize.
Diane Cook - The New Wilderness
The New Wilderness is set in a 'not-distant-enough' future where no nature remains, except in the protected Wilderness State.
The novel explores the story of Bea and her five-year-old daughter Agnes, who is slowly wasting away. Bea knows she cannot stay in the city, but there is only one alternative: The Wilderness State, where mankind has never been allowed to venture, until now.
Bea and Agnes join eighteen other volunteers who agree to take part in a radical experiment. They must slowly learn how to live in the unpredictable and often dangerous wilderness, leaving no trace of their surroundings in their bid to survive. However, as Agnes embraces this new existence, Bea realises that saving her daughter's life might mean losing her in ways she hadn't foreseen.
In this book, Cook explores issues far beyond one's imagination. She aptly describes the natural world and offers insight into the intricacies of a wold no one would understand unless they were part of it.
Tsitsi Dangarembga - This Mournable Body
Most readers will be familiar with young Tambu from Tsitsi Dangarembga’s classic 1988 novel Nervous Conditions, set in late 60s and 70s Rhodesia, before the country gained its independence from Britain in 1980 and became Zimbabwe.
In the Mournable Body,Tambu, now an adult, narrates Dangarembga’s remarkable sequel, telling her story in the second person, as though she cannot believe what has become of her life and wishes to distance herself from it.
At the beginning of the novel, Tambu is being pushed out of a hostel for young women by the matron - the patronising Mrs May, who reminds her that she has “broken the rule of age”. For Tambu, the hostel is symbolic. It is a cocoon in which young, spirited women find their wings, but from which she, now in her late 30s, must be prompted to leave.
Tambu’s troubles are as much to do with existence as they are social, and during moments of frustration such as these, the language takes on a 'Kafkaesque' sensibility.
Dangarembga’s sentences are vivid, rich and impressively detailed, with wonderful detail, capturing Tambu’s elusive struggles to let go off her despressing past.
With her recent publication, Dangarembga has completed the trilogy that started with Nervous Conditions, followed by The Book of Not, and has poignantly chronicled Tambu's life journey from adolescence right through to adulthood.
Credited with over a dozen films, she is often remembered for Neria (1993), a bleak, neo-realist drama that is also one of the highest grossing films in Zimbabwean history.
Avni Doshi - Burnt Sugar
Described by the Guardian as 'an unsettling, sinewy debut', Burnt Sugar chronicles the story of Antara, as she reckons with her mother Tara’s cognitive decline and the boiling resentment she still feels over being neglected.
Set in Pune, India, Antara suffered at the hands of her rebellious young mother, who ran away from her middle-class upbringing to join an ashram, where a guru championed free love and freer sex.
Antara’s name alone – Antara, of Tara, un-Tara – stands as testament to both her mother’s egotism and foolhardiness, and their unbreakable tie.
As adults, neither one of them can stand to be with the other for long, nor can they escape each other. The push-and-pull of their relationship has an effect on Antara’s art, marriage and views on children, all amplified by her mother's memory loss, even while Antara refuses to let her forget.
Burnt Sugar is a toxic love story. But not between lovers - between mother and daughter. Sharp witty and precise. It gradually unravels the knot of memory and myth that bind two women together, exposing the truth that lies beneath.
Maaza Mengiste -The Shadow King
The Shadow King tells the tale of Ethiopia in 1935.
With the threat of Mussolini’s army looming, recently orphaned Hirut struggles to adapt to her new life as a maid. Her new employer, Kidane, an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army, rushes to mobilise his strongest men before the Italians invade.
Hirut and the other women long to do more than care for the wounded and bury the dead. When Emperor Haile Selassie goes into exile and Ethiopia quickly loses hope, it is Hirut who offers a plan to maintain morale. She helps disguise a gentle peasant as the emperor and soon becomes his guard, inspiring other women to take up arms. Nonetheless, despite her bravery, she could not have predicted her own personal war as a prisoner of one of Italy’s most vicious officers.
The Shadow King casts light on the women soldiers written out of African and European history. It is enthralling and explores female power, and what it means to be a woman at war.
It is both a reasonably conventional narrative and a subtly unpredictable. History and modernity are also 'juxtaposed in the factual asymmetries of warfare'.
Douglas Stuart - Shuggie Bain
Shuggie Bain follows the story of Hugh, known as Shuggie, his mother Agnes and her twisted and doomed attempts to be a wife and mother in 1980s Glasgow.
The novel opens in the early 1990s with Shuggie as a teenager trying to keep his head above water, alone in a bedsit, dreaming of going to hairdressing college, while stuck working on an unpleasant supermarket deli counter. The book has flashback moments and often takes one back to 1981, when Shuggie is just a boy and lives in a tenement flat with his grandparents, his older brother, “Leek”, his sister, Catherine, and his mother. His father, Big Shug, a charming violent man, is a taxi driver and a Protestant- (Agnes’s family is Catholic).
The novel unravels Shuggie and Agnes' journney (and, to a lesser extent, the others in the family),as they each attempt to escape, either literally or metaphorically, from their depressing surroundings.
A deeply political novel, one about the impact of Thatcherism on Glaswegian society, which became a place of “men rotting into the settee for want of decent work”.
It aptly describes poverty and the small, necessary dignities that keep people going. It is also breathtakingly good on childhood and Shuggie’s growing sense of feeling different from the other boys on the estate.
The novel also reveals a heartbreaking story of addiction, sexuality, love and a powerful portrayal of a working-class family that is rarely seen in a work of fiction.
Brandon Taylor - Real Life
Drawn from Taylor’s own experiences, the black protagonist of Real Life, Wallace, struggles to navigate the prejudgements and biases of the white cohorts in his PhD program.
The nuanced novel examines the complicated ways race works within academia and heartbreakingly illustrates the dissonance of not feeling accepted or understood at an institution that aggressively markets itself as immaculately progressive.
The similarities between Wallace and Taylor are strong. They are both from the south, 'queer', black, and felt deeply unhappy with the PhD programs they completed in the midwest.
The book painfully reveals Taylors bad memories from that turbulent period of his life, when he was still figuring out how to exist in the midwest as a queer black man after growing up in the south. He calls dating in Wisconsin a “singularly horrifying experience”. Adding that there were microaggressions, fetishisations and misunderstandings which left him unhappy.
Taylor, who has spent the past few years steadily building up a name for himself shares a story of profound and mutilating power, a story that asks if it’s ever really possible to overcome our private wounds, and at what cost.
Various sources used to balance the reviews