Recently, I’ve been reading quite a few proofs of novels that won’t be released until 2018, which makes keeping up with this blog difficult as I try to put up my full reviews as close to the publication date as possible, although you can read my brief thoughts on Goodreads if you’re interested! My two favourites so far have both received a good deal of advance hype – Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock (January 2018) and A.J. Pearce’s Dear Mrs Bird (April 2018). They’re very different novels, but it was a joy to discover that, unusually, the hype was justified in both cases, and I’d definitely keep an eye out for them.
Otherwise, I’ve continued to crack on with my 20 Books of Summer, even though summer itself is a distant memory, and have just finished #17, Swallow by Sefi Atta. I picked this book in the first place after reading Tolita’s review, as I’d never heard of Atta before. It turns out she’s an established and celebrated Nigerian writer, who won the Wole Soynika Prize for Literature in Africa in 2006 and the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa in 2009. Swallow (published in 2010) comes covered in praise from such writers as Leila Aboulela and Nnedi Okorafor. It focuses on the lives of two twenty-something housemates living in Lagos and working at the same bank, Rose and Tolani, who narrates the novel. The novel is largely plotless, but not without incident, as Tolani faces sexual harassment at work, tries to cajole her reluctant boyfriend into marriage, is horrified when one of her neighbour’s children appears to have drowned in their septic tank, and invests her small amount of savings in an unscrupulous scheme. Interspersed with Tolani’s story is the story of her mother, Arike, growing up in rural Nigeria and rebelling against community expectations by refusing to marry and riding to market on a Vespa. Swallow explores the tensions Tolani feels as she considers the very different lives she might live – having migrated to urban Lagos, she is both drawn back to, and repelled, by her rural roots, which she scorns as being infected by primitive ‘tribalism’. She is equally scathing about what she calls ‘Andrews’, after a government advert, Nigerians who travel to other countries in search of a better life. ‘They were not good citizens like those of us who stayed and suffered,’ she reflects ironically. Yet, not so very long afterwards, Tolani is tempted by the idea of becoming a drug mule alongside Rose, swallowing a condom packed with cocaine and travelling to England – not only to earn more than her monthly salary in one go, it’s implied, but to see what else is out there.
Swallow might prove frustrating to many readers because of its lack of narrative drive, and it is lopsidedly structured; the introduction of the drug mule plot, from which the novel takes its title, comes very late in the day, and as a result, the first half meanders and the conclusion feels rushed. Yet the strengths of Atta’s writing carried me along anyway. Tolani’s relationship with Rose, who is irreverent, stubborn and relentlessly reckless, is beautifully-drawn, and Tolani herself refuses to fade into the familiar role of the less confident friend but takes up causes of her own, most notably her insistence on reporting the sexual assault she experiences at her workplace, despite receiving no support from anybody around her. Her relationship with her mother remains, frustratingly, largely off-screen, despite an early, off-hand comment that she has always wondered if she was actually her father’s daughter, but Arike’s story is compelling in its own right, and Atta convincingly shows us what Tolani might have inherited from her mother even though the two do not appear together until the very end of the novel. Her writing is nuanced and complex, and I’m now very interested to read some of her other work (her other two novels A Bit of Difference and Everything Good Will Come were published in 2013 and 2005 respectively, and she also published a collection of short stories, News From Home, in 2010). I’m surprised that her work hasn’t received more critical attention in the UK.
A note: I’m not impressed by the jacketing of this novel by Interlink Books, a US publisher. The woman on the cover, while obviously chosen to appear ‘non-white’, fits Western beauty standards closely, with her light skin and straight, flowing hair. Tolani is explicit in the novel that her hair is ‘untameable‘ and forms an afro if she lets it grow out at all. She deliberately shuns salons where she might have it straightened or add hair extensions. While I’m not sure if this was actually stated, I also imagined her as dark-skinned. I’m not sure why we couldn’t see somebody on the cover who looks more like our narrator, and find this dismaying given how few dark-skinned black women with natural hair we see depicted in the media.
This month, I also read Sarah Hall’s new collection of short stories, Madame Zero. I’m a longstanding Sarah Hall fan and I think I’ve read everything she’s written, so I was obviously going to enjoy this. However, it didn’t bowl me over quite as much as her previous collection, The Beautiful Indifference, which was one of my top ten books of 2011. The two flagship stories here are ‘Mrs Fox’, which won the BBC National Short Story Award in 2013, and ‘Evie’, which was shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award, also in 2013. Both stories are about the visceral and – given contemporary patriarchal norms – disturbing reality of female sexuality, and both work very well. And yet both seemed to me to be oddly familiar. Other stories in the collection – ‘One in Four’ and ‘Later, His Ghost’ – pick up on other favoured Hall themes, exploring dystopian futures, and again, I felt a sense of deja vu. Funnily enough, it was an odd little story that I didn’t like at all at first, ‘Goodnight Nobody’, that ended up working its way under my skin, as it follows a lonely young girl, Jem, as she observes her mortician mother, ‘Mumm-Rah’, who takes on the status of a minor deity in the telling. ‘Case Study 2’, which deals with a psychiatrist treating an abused boy, fulfils Hall’s own strictures for the short story, refusing to wrap anything up neatly, so it lingers long after it ends. But then ‘Theatre 6’, about doctors operating in a world where abortion is outlawed, felt a bit sub Margaret Atwood, and ‘Luxury Hour’, about a new mother escaping to the swimming pool, reminded me a bit of Helen Simpson’s painfully obvious stories about motherhood, although Hall is a far better writer and this is a far better story. In short, it’s by Hall, so of course it’s worth a read, but I’d try The Beautiful Indifference first (or if you fancy a novel, The Carhullan Army).
Other books worth mentioning: Emily Fridland’s Booker-shortlisted The History of Wolves, which I thought was good, but not outstanding – as with Hall’s stories, there was a thread of familiarity in this narrative of an isolated teenager who involves herself with the affairs of an abusive family. I couldn’t help loving Shonda Rhimes’s messy, stream-of-consciousness quasi self-help book, Year of Yes, which I read for the all-female Newcastle-based book group I’ve just joined, Sisters Read the World, which focuses on reading books by writers of colour. Up next, I’m reading Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce, and am going to try Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, which has received mixed reviews. Having been pretty hesitant about Shamsie’s earlier novels, I’ll be interested to see if this one can change my mind.