Feed on

“Deep in Honduras in a region called La Mosquitia, lie some of the last unexplored places on earth. Mosquitia is a vast, lawless area…of rainforests, swamps, lagoons, mountains…and the thickest jungle in the world….For centuries, [it] has been home to one of the world’s most persistent and tantalizing legends. Somewhere in this impassable wilderness, it is said, lies a “lost city” built of white stone. It is called Ciudad Blanca, the “White City,” also referred to as the “Lost City of the Monkey God.”

cover lost city

No one knows whether the “Lost City” actually exists and, if it does, whether it was built by the Mayas or some other, unknown indigenous group, but Mosquitia’s thirty-two thousand square miles, filled with rainforests, swamps, lagoons, rivers, mountains, ravines, waterfalls and roaring torrents have been virtually impassable throughout modern history, and early maps have labeled this place “Portal del Infierno,” or “Gates of Hell.” Any adventurer willing to test himself against these natural barriers would also have to be willing to deal with deadly snakes, jaguars, catclaw vines, with their hooked thorns, and hordes of insects and flies carrying unknown, possibly virulent diseases. And if someone were still determined to look for this lost city, s/he would also have to deal with equally dangerous human problems: Much of the area surrounding Mosquitia is ruled by drug cartels.


In February, 2015, an expedition of researchers decides to investigate this area, fearing that the on-going clear-cutting of the land could lead to the inadvertent discovery and destruction of ancient ruins and artifacts from the “lost cities” in Mosquitia. Author Douglas Preston joins a small group of researchers headed into a part of the jungle which “had not seen human beings in living memory.” Scientists, archaeologists, photographers, film producers, a British veteran skilled in jungle warfare and survival, and an expert in “lidar,” a form of radar involving Light Detection and Ranging, have been granted ten days to set up camp, do their research, and then leave the area, empty-handed. The President of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernandez, has provided army rangers, many of them members of indigenous Indian groups, for the protection of the researchers, and everyone involved in the project is to operate under the greatest of secrecy, revealing nothing about the location, keeping all notes, maps, and photographs under guard, and protecting the isolation of this area from those who might want to profit from the illegal sale of its artifacts.

The howler monkeys keep author Preston up most of the night on his first night in the jungle.

The howler monkeys keep author Preston up most of the night on his first night in the jungle.

Douglas Preston, well known co-author with Lincoln Child of a thriller series, has also worked as a writer and editor for the American Museum of Natural History, doing additional writing for National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian, and the New Yorker, and this trip would be part of a story for National Geographic, its photographs supplied by David Yoder, also on the trip. Preston’s unique talents here – both his fiction writing experience and his scientific work – would allow him to recreate the historical background of the trip and the real events during the trip in ways at least as exciting as the fictional events of his thrillers. While other members of the research group would be taking notes and writing about their scientific and historical discoveries and their technical research, Preston would be able to provide a more general, less esoteric, presentation to the general public through his National Geographic story and through this book.

A fer-de-lance, one of the most poisonous snakes in the world, appears at camp, the first night Preston is there.

A fer-de-lance, one of the most poisonous snakes in the world, appears at camp the first night Preston is there. This one is being “milked” of its venom. Note the length of its fangs.

On his first night, after hacking his way into the jungle to make a place for his hammock, Preston discovers the howler monkeys, and later has an encounter with a fer-de-lance, one of the deadliest snakes in the world. “In a strange way the encounter sharpened the experience of being here,” he says. “It amazed me that a valley so primeval and unspoiled could still exist in the twenty-first century. It was truly a lost world, a place that did not want us and where we did not belong.” The next day the group slashes its way to the top of a hill and plaza, where they find geometric mounds and terraces and a large stone, probably an altar stone, hidden among the heavy vegetation, then more and more mounds and plazas. One scientist concludes that “all this terrain, everything you see here, has been entirely modified by human hands.” The lidar survey had been proved correct.

The were-jaguar effigy was found poking up from the ground on the first day of exploration of the site.

The were-jaguar effigy was found poking up from the ground on the first day of exploration of the site.

After a delay for torrential rains, they later return to the base of the pyramid they have been investigating, and discover some “weird stones.” Dozens of carved stone sculptures are poking out of the ground. The first thing Preston sees is “the snarling head of a jaguar sticking out of the forest floor, then the rim of a vessel decorated with a vulture’s head and more stone jars carved with snakes.” These were “lying here undisturbed since they had been left centuries ago – until we stumbled upon them…proof, if we needed it, that this valley had not been explored in modern times.” To protect the site containing the “were-jaguar” and the vessel, the archaeologist tapes it off, allowing only the three archaeologists from among the ten people in the group to go inside the lines, that “jewel of a place, as pure as you could find, untouched for centuries.” Much more lay below the surface, but it would take excavation a year later to see how much more.

Harrison Ford, active in Conservation International for fifteen years, is currently Vice Chairman of the group which has financed the second trip to the "Lost City." Here he consoles a baby orangutan at a sanctuary in Borneo.

Harrison Ford, active in Conservation International for fifteen years, is currently Vice Chairman of the group which  financed the second trip to the “Lost City” in 2015.  Here he consoles a baby orangutan at a sanctuary in Borneo.

Eventually coming out of the expedition with only their photos, and leaving every artifact behind, marked with tape, the group returns, and Preston writes a brief announcement about the discovery of a lost city in the Honduran rain forest, a story that goes viral and becomes front-page news. Academic controversy immediately results, some academics claiming that the expedition has made false claims and exaggerated the importance of the finds. The academic jealousies do not abate. In the meantime, most of the participants in the expedition have had to be hospitalized, and treated, some for many months, for leishmaniasis, an often fatal parasitic disease with “a long and terrible history,” almost unheard of in modern times. Soldiers guarding the site have also been diagnosed with this disease, which has no known cure, raising questions about pandemics and the possible reasons for the total abandonment of the “lost city,” seemingly overnight. A second trip in 2015, in which Preston also participated, has led to further discoveries, this expedition having been financed by Conservation International, of which actor Harrison Ford is currently the Vice Chairman. The first artifacts removed from the site in 2015, the “were-jaguar” metate and the vulture jar, have been presented to the President of Honduras, and the country is now gearing up to protect and promote its own heritage. The rest of the story will continue, and I suspect that National Geographic will keep us all up to date.

Somewhere in Honduras is a river like this, and somewhere along this river is the site of the Lost City. Photo by Dave Yoder, photographer for the expedition.

Somewhere in Honduras is a river like this, and somewhere along this river is the site of the Lost City. Photo by Dave Yoder, photographer for the expedition.

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo appears on http://www.nctv17.com/

The howler monkeys, which kept the author up all night on the night he arrived to make his camp for the expedition, are shown here:  https://www.newscientist.com/

The dangerous fer-de-lance almost bites the author on the first night he is in camp in the jungle.  Note the length of its fangs.  http://www.capefearserpentarium.com/photos-23.html

The were-jaguar, found at the site of the Lost City, was partially buried among other effigies which were discovered at the Lost City.  A year later,  it was presented to the President Hernandez of Honduras.  https://rperon1017blog.wordpress.com

Harrison Ford, shown here with a baby orangutan at a sanctuary in Borneo, has been involved with Conservation International for fifteen years and is now Vice Chairman of the organization.  This organization financed the second expedition to the site in later 2015. http://yearsoflivingdangerously.com/

The photo of the winding river in Honduras, which may or may not be the river near which the Lost City was found, is by Dave Yoder, the photographer for the expedition. http://www.mirror.co.uk

REVIEW. Reviews, Book Club Suggestions, Exploration, Historical, Honduras, Non-fiction, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Douglas Preston
Published by: Grand Central
Date Published: 01/03/2017
ISBN: 978-1455540006
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

Note: This novel, the author’s second, was WINNER of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Best Novel when it was published in Australia in 2015.

“In the early morning dark among the man fern of the damp hill’s foreslope, Toosey unbundled his bedroll and sat watching his backtrack and waiting. He built no fire and took no tea but sat on the blankets peeling a turnip with his knife, passing slices to his lips. A bone-splinter moon rose wondrous within the overspread of stars, the dark below the [gum trees] deepening into blue and then black, but still no one appeared upon the slope. Had he eluded them?” Thomas Toosey, father of William, hiding from pursuers.

cover WilsonRohan To Name Those LostIn 1874, the island of Tasmania, one hundred fifty miles off the southeast coast of Australia, is boiling with rage. Once a penal colony filled with the hardest criminals, and the site of almost total genocide of the original aboriginal inhabitants by the British, Tasmania, in 1874, is a seething cauldron of hungry men and the toughest of women, many of them homeless, trying to survive the only way they know – by using whatever weapons they have at hand to gain what they need to stay alive. Adding to the problems of the poor, the Launceston and Western Railway Company, run by the colonizers, has recently accumulated large debts at the hands of speculators, and the Tasmanian government has just decided to make its citizens pay for those losses. Learning that the legislature has “voted to confiscate our property, steal our money, and make ruins of our lives,” large crowds gather to take matters into their own hands. “It is because they believe us weak,” they decide. “Because they believe the undue exercise of power over the supine and the insipid is their prerogative.” Resentment against the police is high, and the tempers of the poor and hungry are shorter than short.

author photo rohan wilsonWithin this fraught atmosphere, Tasmanian author Rohan Wilson introduces several hard men, women, and children who are also dealing with emotionally exhausting personal problems, many of which involve long-standing resentments and hatreds. To accommodate both the general turmoil and the personal traumas of his characters, Wilson creates his own style of gothic novel, a form which allows him to recreate the horrors and abuses of the times while also creating overt sentiment and sympathy for some of the characters. The hero of the novel, if it can be said to have one, is twelve-year-old William Toosey, a street child, who discovers, as the novel opens, that his mother is extremely ill, probably dying. Rushing to find a doctor, whom he cannot afford, he is accosted by the sadistic local constable, Beatty, who refuses to let him pass, demanding information from William about the theft of some cases of beer and, with his junior constable, beating William on back and legs until he can hardly move. By the time William is able to get free and find the doctor, his mother is dead. The doctor does him a “favor,” however, granting him fourteen days to pay his bill. William decides to write to his long-absent father for help.

While hiding from pursuers, Toosey notes the present of the little rosella birds.

While hiding from pursuers, Toosey notes the presence of little rosella birds.

William’s father, Thomas Toosey, has been held incommunicado by a “deadman” who is about to claim the bounty placed on Toosey by Fitheal Flynn, a man whom Toosey has robbed. Flynn and a hooded man soon arrive at the shed where Toosey has been held, but Toosey has managed to escape into the bush. Hardened by his earlier life in Tasmania as a tracker and bounty hunter of the aborigines, Toosey is a killer, seeing “in the bullet, the knife, and the club a power that could make a man his own master,” and at age fifty-nine, he is still using those weapons to make his way in life. Now resting overnight in a cave, he still makes note of the kangaroo mobs and the small flock of rosellas “dipping and swinging and making horrible cries,” a natural but unlikely image ascribed to a man hiding for his life. Determined to “to do right” by his son William, who has written to him for help, Toosey is committed to acting like a real father.

These little "rat-kangaroos" are small marsupials, about the size of a rabbit, which hop on their hindfeet and dig for much of their food. Toosey snares one for food while he is in hiding. Photo by Dick Walker.

These potoroos,  “rat-kangaroos,” are small marsupials, about the size of a rabbit, which hop on their hindfeet and dig for much of their food. Toosey snares one for food while he is in hiding. Photo by Dick Walker.

The action and points of view alternate among William Toosey and the life he is leading after his mother’s death; Thomas Toosey, who is trying to reach his son William from another part of the island so he can help him; Fitheal Flynn and his “hooded man” who are trying to get back the money that Toosey has stolen from them; and Beatty and Webster, the local constables who are trying to capture any and all of them. Additional connections between Toosey and Fitheal Flynn and his hooded accomplice explain why Flynn’s hatred of Toosey is so visceral and unyielding and why he is willing to fight Toosey to the death. One more character, Jane Eleanor Hall, whose head is shaved and is thought, at first, to be a man, adds to the complexities and mysterious identities when she finds Flynn and his companion hiding in her house and offers to help them find Toosey if they pay her for her help.

This bulldog pistol features strongly in this novel.

This bulldog pistol features strongly in this novel.

As in other gothic novels, the action here comes fast and furious, with elaborate descriptions bringing it alive, and violence the usual result of interactions of characters. Interestingly, the “hero” here, young William Toosey, and the anti-hero, Thomas Toosey, are from the same family and have some love for each other, adding a humanizing, if not sentimental, touch. Toosey and Flynn, both bearing true hatred for each other, are fated to meet each other in a showdown, the outcome of which should require that both end up dead. Their place in the universe of violence which surrounds them, however, makes their fates seem less important than it is in most Victorian gothic novels, as their young accomplices, William Toosey and Flynn’s hooded mystery man would seem to have little future without them.  At one point, a melodramatic pronouncement adds a bit of moralizing to the novel: “The sound of love is to name those lost who lived for others,” the source of the novel’s title.

Rechabite man in his sash and elaborate dress, a vastly different appearance from what the local men are wearing.

Rechabite man in his sash and elaborate dress, a vastly different appearance from the dirty and tattered clothing of the local men.

Within all the misery here, Wilson does include one darkly humorous “take” on religion, unlike traditional gothic novels in which good, evil, and a genuine sense of a god and/or a devil pervade the action: At one point, Flynn and his exhausted and hungry accomplice, are waiting for a train when representatives of the Independent Order of Rechabites, a temperance group, elaborately dressed and holding ornate banners, leave the train to the beat of drums. The contrast with the rest of the waiting crowd leads Flynn to exclaim, “What in the name of fock…For the love of God, would you look at them,” clearly an indication that this Tasmanian gothic novel differs from traditional British gothic in important ways.


Photos, in order:  The author’s photo appears on http://freshfiction.com

Toosey, while hiding from pursuers, comments on the presence of kangaroo mobs and rosella birds.  http://pixdaus.com

The potoroo, or rat-kangaroo, is a rabbit-sized marsupial which hops on its hind feet and digs for much of its food.  Toosey snared one of these while in hiding and expected to use it for food.  http://www.potoroo.org/

The bulldog pistol, often worn hidden behind the back of Flynn’s hooded accomplice, plays an important role throughout the novel.  http://www.armeancienne.fr/

Men wearing the clothing of the Independent Orders of Rechabites get off the train as the locals are waiting.  Representing a tee-totalling, religious existence, they are an ironic contrast with the local men in their dirty and tattered clothing many of whom are drunk.  http://www.soldiersofthequeen.com

REVIEW. Historical, Literary, Social and Political Issues, Australia, Tasmania
Written by: Rohan Wilson
Published by: Europa Editions
Date Published: 02/07/2017
ISBN: 978-1609453497
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Note: This novel by Irish author Sebastian Barry was WINNER of the Costa Award for Best Novel of 2016 in the UK and Ireland.

“Don’t tell me a Irish is an example of civilized humanity. He may be an angel in the clothes of a devil or a devil in the clothes of an angel but either way you’re talking to two when you talk to one Irishman….I seen killer Irishmen and gentle souls but they’re both the same, they both have an awful fire burning inside them, like they were just the carapace of a furnace.” – Thomas McNulty, a 17-year-old Irishman in the U. S. Army, 1850s.

cover days without endEscaping the Great Famine in Ireland, Thomas McNulty, a boy in his mid-teens and the only survivor of his family, hopes for a new start in a new world. Sneaking onto a boat for Canada with other starving Irish, many of whom die on board, he discovers, upon his arrival, that “Canada was a-feared of us…We were only rats of people. Hunger takes away what you are.” Seeing no future there, he travels, eventually, to the US, working his way to Missouri, where he then meets John Cole, another orphan boy of his own age, whose great-grandmother was an Indian. They connect instantly, and “for the first time I felt like a human person….John Cole was my love, all my love.” Realizing that they have a better chance of surviving together than they would have separately, they figure out a way to keep working until they are old enough to enlist in the U.S. Army. Once in the Army, they end up in northern California, where recent settlers have been having trouble with the Yurok Indians, native to those lands. The boys’ first battle is so savage and the outcome so devastating that Thomas describes it as “a complete vision of world’s end and death, in those moments I could think no more, my head bloodless, empty, racketing, astonished…We were dislocated, now we were ghosts.” Later they spend more years and more battles in Wyoming and eventually in Tennessee, where they fight for an Irish regiment against “the Rebs” in the Civil War.

barry costa prizeSebastian Barry, a writer with almost unparalleled ability to control his characters, his story line, his style, and the peaks and valleys of the changing moods of his novel, succeeds brilliantly in this novel, already the winner of the Costa Award in the UK, and likely to be winner of several more major prizes, as well. Thomas McNulty, Barry’s main character, is shown in all his youth and vulnerability, but Barry never resorts to easy sentimentality in order to draw sympathy for him, no matter how horrific the circumstances in which Thomas finds himself. Life’s harsh conditions and Thomas’s lack of family have become his accepted “normal,” and the reader quickly identifies with him as he slowly recreates a “family” of sorts during the course of this often violent and bloody novel. John Cole, the first member to join his “family,” becomes his “rock,” and their  relationship keeps both of them grounded during battle action and its attendant trauma which are the undoing of some older, less hopeful men.


This small painting (16″ x 11″) by Henry Farny (1847 -1916) from 1894 shows a Southern Warrior in his formal dress. This painting set a record at Bonham’s when it was sold in 2012. See photo credits.

Much of the novel is told through flashbacks, and Thomas admits that he sometimes may have minor details wrong. He jumps around as he remembers events, and he makes no distinction between the barbarity of the Indian wars as opposed to the American Civil War. There is no difference, the author is saying – one war blends into the next, regardless of whether the participants are of different cultures. Despite all, however, Thomas continues to hope and dream. His “family” gets larger when John becomes an adoptive father. Later, when Thomas and John are away fighting the Civil War, the child’s caretaker  becomes the equivalent of a grandfather for the child and a father figure for Thomas and John. The child gives new meaning to life for all of them while also learning the nature of responsibility and honor. On a larger scale, Major Neale, leader of the regiment to which Thomas and John belong, suffers great personal losses and arouses sympathy in Thomas. Caught-His-Horse-First, an Indian chief, also suffers similar losses, creating a sense of sad universality as these individual losses affect their individual judgment and their actions.

Battle scene by Don Troiani shows the harp and shamrock insignia of the Irish Brigade during the Civil War.

Battle scene by Don Troiani shows the harp and shamrock insignia of the Irish Brigade during the Civil War.  Click and scroll to enlarge.

Irony adds to the thematic message. Thomas, like most of the other soldiers in his regiment, is Irish, and during the Civil War, their regimental flag bears the shamrock and harp. In their first big battle, they discover that “the Rebs” they are fighting are also carrying the same flag, though they fight each other, making both sides wonder why. At another point during the war, a captain in Thomas’s regiment takes issue with the murderous intent of the major’s orders and the graphically depicted barbarity which results, proving that both sides are acting like animals. In time, Thomas himself is forced to take action against one of his own men, but unlike them, he takes no joy at taking a life to save that of another. Depictions of the collecting of trophies from the enemy will make every reader question the innate nature of humanity. The themes of love and war become fully developed as additional scenes show the interconnections between power and weakness, honor and cowardice, empathy and cold-blooded aggression, selflessness and sacrifice.

The confederate bowie knife (with its 13" blade) was a killer instrument during the Civil War, often responsible for more deaths than rifles.

The Confederate Bowie knife (with its 13″ blade) was a killer instrument during the Civil War, often responsible for more deaths than rifles.

Throughout the novel, Barry seems to do the impossible, combining his naturally lyrical style with subject matter which is often tough, sometimes brutal, and never lovely. Yet he makes it work. One battle takes place amidst great noise, but Thomas notes that “There’s all these little humpy hills and stands of scrubby trees, and then the full dark river pouring south on our left. Friendly, protecting river.” When he sees the Rebs, he comments, “how thin these boys are, how strange, like ghosts and ghouls. Their eyes like twenty thousand dirty stones. River stones.” After the battle, a particularly large man, has “run his big form so heavy he’s fallen over like a killed man. I can hear him muttering into the earth, his mouth and face plastered in mud. The day is as dry as a furnace but his sweat makes mud enough to throw a pot.” And after the battle, “the whole body of men seems to be sleeping. No force will ever rouse us again. Our eyes are closed and we are asking for our strength returned. If we got Gods we’re praying to them. Then it seeps back. No thankful speech of any captain could be so deep as the relief of it.” Barry makes it all real in a novel which Kazuo Ishiguro describes as “the most fascinating line-by-line first-person narration I’ve come across in years,” and which Donal Ryan calls “a beautiful, savage, tender, searing work of art. Sentence after perfect sentence, it grips and does not let go.” #1 on my Favorites List for 2017.



This landscape by Alfred Bierstadt (1830 – 1902), “View from Wind River Mountains,” is used as the cover for the US edition of this book. Most of the detail is from the left side of the painting.

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo is from http://en.mogaznews.com/

The photo of the “Southern Plains  Indian Warrior,” appears on https://www.pinterest.com    Bonham’s, an auction house in England, says: “On one of our appraisal events, we consigned a painting that was originally bought from a garage sale for $15,” Sanchez said. “We estimated the painting at $100,000 to $150,000 and it ended up selling for $361,500 including buyer’s premium. That painting was “Southern Plains Indian warrior,” by Henry Farny, part of a featured lot in Bonhams’ California and Western paintings and sculpture auction in May 2012. 

The battle scene by Don Troiani, showing the flag of the Irish Brigade, appears on http://civilwartalk.com

The Confederate Bowie knife, with its wooden grips and 13″ blade, was responsible for almost as many deaths as the rifle.  http://www.civilwar.si.edu

“View from Wind River Mountains” by Albert Bierstadt is shown on http://www.ebay.com

REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, Coming-of-age, Historical, Ireland and Northern Ireland, Literary, Native American, Social and Political Issues, United States, US Regional
Written by: Sebastian Barry
Published by: Viking
Date Published: 01/24/2017
ISBN: 978-0525427360
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“Hortensia hoped the women [at the Community Association meeting] were there for the same reason she was, even if secretly…for the promise of something non-threatening and happily boring with which to pass the time, get nearer to death, get closer to being done with it all. After so many years of living – too many – Hortensia wanted to die. She had no intention of taking her life, but at least there were the Katterijn committee meetings, slowly ticking the hours off her sheet.”

cover woman next doorBorn in Barbados, brought up in Nigeria, and now living in South Africa, author Yewande Omotoso may soon have to give up her profession. Trained as an architect and still working in that field, she has recently won the South African Literary Award for First Time Author and has been nominated for three other major South African prizes in the past four years. Her first novel, Bom Boy, was a popular, as well as literary, success, and this new novel looks as if it will appeal to the same kind of audience, readers looking for an escape from some of the doom and gloom of contemporary life but not an escape into mindlessness, a story with some realistic grit. In The Woman Next Door, her second novel, Omotoso’s vivid characters and devotion to telling a good story provide charm and the kind of humor which reveals her characters’ attitudes and states of mind, drawing in the reader and making the novel’s conflicts feel more like those that many of us face in our own lives. Setting the novel in Cape Town, South Africa, Omotoso depicts Katterijn, an upscale enclave which has not yet escaped the country’s past history of apartheid, however much the professionally successful neighbors might want to pretend that it no longer exists, but she is not a “message novelist.” For her, the story and its characters come first, her themes being revealed through their conflicts and the empathy she creates among her readers.

author photoIn what may be a unique twist, main characters Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are both over eighty years old – neighbors, with a hedge separating their properties. Both women are independent and often aggressive, and they have learned from experience to hold fast to what they believe and to be willing to say anything in their own defense. From their first meeting they have hated each other. Hortensia, a black woman, age eighty-five, is a former fabric designer and entrepreneur with a successful career, owning and operating boutiques which sell unique fabrics from all over Africa. Having met and married her white husband Peter in 1950s London, she then moved to Nigeria before moving to Cape Town, where she is the only black owner of property in Katterijn where they live. Her husband Peter is now dying, and she is his sometimes resentful caretaker, their relationship having suffered from his bad behavior in the past.

pierneef 1945

Marion wants to protect a Pierneef painting from seizure in bankruptcy proceedings. Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef, regarded as one of the best of the Old South Africa masters, “reduced and simplified the landscape to geometric structures, using flat planes, lines and colour to present the harmony and order in nature.” See Wiki.  Click to enlarge.

Marion, a white widow, was the architect of the forty-home development of Katterijn, where she and Hortensia live, and part of the tension between Hortensia and Marion has resulted from the fact that Hortensia is now living in the first house that Marion ever designed on her own, her favorite project, the one she herself would like to own. Marion’s own house is built on the land occupied by the slave quarters of the former estate on which Hortensia’s house is built, an irony which does not escape her. To complicate things even more on an emotional level, Marion has just discovered that her husband spent their entire savings before his recent death, and she has no idea how she will live when the bank begins to take action. She owns only one treasure, which she is determined to save from any seizure by the bank – a painting by landscape artist Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef, still regarded as one of the masters of landscape painting in South Africa.

The Leukodendron argenteum tree, an endangered species limited now to the Cape Town area, is where a family wants to bury one of its grandparents among her children who died.

A Cape Town family wants to bury one of its grandmothers under a “silver tree” with her deceased children.  The Leucodenrum argenteum, an endangered species, is limited now to the Cape Town area Photo by Andrew Massyn.

In the meantime, Marion stays busy, having appointed herself to be in charge of the community association and its business, the most pressing issue of which is a recent land claim against the development. With apartheid abolished legally in 1991, a Land Claims Commission was set up in the Nineties “to restore land to the disenfranchised,” and though the time for application for redress has passed, a recent new claim has emerged. A large, extended black family now claims land owned and operated by a wealthy white family which bought it at auction and operates a vineyard on it. Of less import, financially, is the request by another person whose grandparents were slaves living in the slave quarters of the estate that originally existed on the site of the development. This woman is asking permission to bury the ashes of her grandmother where several of her children were buried, at a “silver tree” on the development’s property. This tree has writing on it listing the names of those black slaves buried beneath it, and it belongs to Hortensia.

From 1906 - 1909, Pablo Picasso's '"African Period," the artist was influenced by artworks brought back from Sub-Saharan Africa following the expansion of French influence there.

From 1906 – 1909, Pablo Picasso’s ‘”African Period,” the artist was influenced by artworks brought back from sub-Saharan Africa following the expansion of French influence there.

Within this general sketch of the circumstances under which the all the action takes place, Omotoso develops the conflicts, the complications, and the conclusions to many issues, large and small. The point of view rotates among the characters and their pasts, creating many individualized scenes, and at times I could not help thinking of this story as the basis for a film comparing and contrasting the marriages, issues with children, career decisions, and dealings with their husbands’ infidelities faced by both Hortensia and Marion.  Their skirmishes, insults, and hissy fits will keep smiles on the faces of readers for much of the novel, but circumstances arise in which both women must co-operate, despite their hatred for each other. As Hortensia declares, “Hating is a drier form of drowning.”

Adire textiles by the Yoruba in Nigeria were popular in boutiques owned by Hortensia when she lived there, and afterward when she was in S. Africa. Photo from video, see photo credits for video.

Adire textiles by the Yoruba in Nigeria were popular in boutiques owned by Hortensia when she lived there, and afterward when she was in S. Africa. Photo from video, see photo credits for video link. Click to enlarge.

At times, the novel does get bogged down somewhat in domestic issues with sudden coincidences used to resolve some of the issues between Hortensia and Marion. Occasionally, Omotoso also becomes sentimental, using imagery designed to pull at the reader’s heart strings. The author’s ability to deal with her thematic message regarding racism without becoming preachy or trite is remarkable, however, and her occasional artistic references, such as Picasso’s response to African art and its influence on his French paintings, expand the imagery of cultural inclusion and connection beyond the borders of this novel. A novel that has something to say on a universal scale, The Woman Next Door is also a fast-paced tale of two women in their eighties who give new meaning to the term “nasty women.”

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo appears on http://www.bbc.co.uk/

Landscape by (Jacobus Hendrik) Pierneef (1886 – 1957).  Pierneef, considered one of the greatest of the South African masters of landscape, produced paintings which “reduced and simplified the landscape to geometric structures, using flat planes, lines and colour to present the harmony and order in nature.”  See https://en.wikipedia.org/

The Silver Tree from South Africa, an endangered species,  and where a family wants to bury the grandmother of her dead children, is located on the border between the houses of Hortensia and Marion. Photo by Andrew Massyn:  https://commons.wikimedia.org

Picasso was influenced by artwork from sub-Saharan Africa from 1906 – 1909, his African Period, following the expansion of French influence there. Hortensia went to Abeokuta, a place said to have influenced Picasso’s work, when she had her boutiques.  This portrait is from that period:  https://www.tripadvisor.com.sg/

Hortensia was particularly interested in the Yoruba adire fabric which she sold in her boutiques.  This photo is from a video on the making of this fabric:  http://artthreads.blogspot.com/2012/03/friday-inspiration-indigo.html

REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, Historical, South Africa, Nigeria, Social and Political Issues, Apartheid|
Written by: Yewande Omotoso
Published by: Picador
Date Published: 02/07/2017
ISBN: 978-1250124579
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover


Note: In 2016 Han Kang was WINNER of the Man Booker International Prize for The Vegetarian, her previous novel.

“Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species? Is the dignity that we cling to nothing but self-delusion, masking from ourselves this single truth: that each one of us is capable of being reduced to an insect, a ravening beast, a lump of meat? To be degraded, damaged, slaughtered – is this the essential fate of humankind, one that history has confirmed as inevitable?” – The Prisoner, 1990.

coverHaving grown up in Gwangju, South Korea, where her brother still lives, author Han Kang writes of that city’s civil uprising of May, 1980, when she was ten years old, and the military’s reaction with all its attendant horrors. In that perennially restive southern city, many young people, most of them unarmed, were slaughtered at the hands of aggressive government soldiers, and when the battles ended, there were no clear victors. Just six months prior, President Park Chung-hee, a harsh dictator, was assassinated by the nation’s security services. He had ruled the country for eighteen years and was succeeded as President by Major General Chun Doo-Hwan, in April, 1980. The following month, Chun feared the possibility of a popular rebellion in Gwangju and quickly deployed the army there. By closing the university, he thereby freed many earnest, but untrained, young people who took to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with the new military government. Many were murdered.

authorUsing both research and interviews conducted with many survivors, Han Kang recreates those fraught times, developing a circular narrative of six overlapping chapters, with each chapter depicting vibrant, realistic characters who participate in the rebellion in Gwangju. As they overlap and reappear in each other’s narratives, the characters reveal different points of view of the action they have observed. Han’s prodigious descriptive skills are more than equal to the task of describing the one-sided warfare between naïve young men and their heavily armed opponents, but she also sees this action in broad thematic terms. In her previous novel, The Vegetarian, Han asked basic questions about who we are as humans, who we are in relation to the outside world, and how much control we have over our lives. In Human Acts, she takes these same themes to another level, delving deeply into the questions raised in the opening quotation on whether human beings are fundamentally cruel and whether cruelty, with its damage and degradation, is the only thing we share with each other as a species. Is cruelty, in fact, the “essential fate” of mankind and is it inevitable, she asks.

Taegukgi, the flag of South Korea

The Taegukgi, the flag of South Korea, used to decorate the coffins of the dead rebels in Gwangju.

In the first of the six episodes, “The Boy, 1980,” a young boy of fifteen, the smallest in his third year class of middle school, is viewing the bodies of twenty-eight rebels who have been killed in action in Gwangju. The bodies have been laid out in the gym of the university, and the young boy is anxious about the fate of a friend. As the families arrive to identify their loved ones, the national anthem is playing and the Taegukgi, the national flag, is spread over each coffin, leading the boy to wonder “why you would sing the national anthem for people who’d been killed by soldiers” and “why cover the coffin with the Taegukgi? As though it wasn’t the nation itself that had murdered them.” As his mother comes to drag him back home, Dong-ho begins to wonder about the souls of the dead, “How long do souls linger by the side of their bodies? Do they really flutter away like some kind of bird? Is that what trembles the edges of the candle flame?” – questions which continue throughout the novel.


Unarmed boy beaten by army officer.

In the next section, the “Boy’s Friend, 1980,” the lingering soul of an otherwise unidentified boy is commenting on what has happened to him and to the man lying across him as “the helmets” and the Red Cross arrive to put them on a military truck. He is frustrated because he cannot separate his soul from his dead body to check on a friend, and he is worried about his sister. “My sister’s soul, like mine, [may] still be lingering somewhere, but where?…Without bodies how would we know each other?” Memories come to him, and as new bodies are brought in, the souls cluster around. When the pyre of bodies starts burning, the boy wonders where his soul should go, sorry because he feels he has failed.

Deoksugung Palace in Seoul, where an abused editor gets off the bus. The contrast between the beauty of the ancient palace and the horrors of the present is unmistakable. Photo by Ivan Herman.

Deoksugung Palace in Seoul, where an abused editor gets off the bus. The contrast between the beauty of the ancient palace and the horrors of the editor’s present is unmistakable. Photo by Ivan Herman.

Subsequent sections continue the story of the rebellion with “The Editor, 1985,” as a young woman gets off the bus in front of the Deoksu Palace on her way home from work. She wears a scarf hiding her face, showing only her eyes. She has just been “struck so hard, over and over in the exact same spot, that the capillaries laced over her right cheekbone burst, the blood trickling out through her torn skin.” She had been working with the translator of a new work with political overtones, a person living in hiding whose own family does not know how to reach him. Times for the editor are tense, and a mysterious person has now assaulted her for this work. Flyers saying “Down with the Butcher, Chun Doo-Hwan” emphasize that not much has changed in the five years since the rebellion, and she has clearly paid the price.

Monami Biro pen, used as a torture device, another ironic detail, since "mon ami" is French for "friend."

The simple Monami Biro pen was used as a torture device, another ironic detail, since “mon ami” is French for “friend.”

“The Prisoner, 1990,” ten years after the rebellion, details a man’s long imprisonment in a cell with ninety others and his on-going torture there – every interrogation begins with an assault and continues as a Monami Biro is jammed between a prisoner’s twisted fingers, where it remains for weeks or months. Released years later, the prisoner cannot forget the horrors and his agonized questions about his soul, likening it to fragile glass. “Factory Girl, 2002” provides more information about censorship, unionization, strike-breakers, and the personal costs, even as late as 2002, while “The Boy’s Mother” takes place in the present, thirty years after the rebellion. In this especially moving section, the mother reveals that she has never been able to forget her own actions toward her son during the uprising and its costs, reliving those events from 1980 every day. Han’s work takes an emotional toll, but every detail works, and no detail is gratuitous. Ultimately, she recreates the turmoil and human cost of more than two decades of Korean history, and she does it in a mere two hundred pages.

Note: To avoid spoilers, I have not included the names of the characters within the separate sections.  Though the number of characters is small, some names are similar, and readers might want to keep a brief character list which will show how these overlap.


Photos, in order:  The author’s photo appears on http://koreanliteraturenow.com/

The South Korean flag, the Taegukgi, is shown on http://koreanliteraturenow.com/

The unarmed boy being beaten in the Gwangju uprising is from https://inconseoulable.wordpress.com

Built in the 14th century, the Deoksugung Palace was a residence of the royal family until early in the twentieth century.  Photo by Ivan Herman. The contrast between the beauty of the ancient palace and the horrors of the present is unmistakable in the image of “the Editor” getting off the bus after being abused in the present. Photo by Ivan Herman. https://www.ivan-herman.net/

The simple Monami Biro pen, used as a torture device, is another ironic detail, since “mon ami” is French for “friend.”  https://www.amazon.com/

REVIEW. Historical, Korea, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: HAN KANG
Published by: Hogarth
Date Published: 01/17/2017
ISBN: 978-1101906729
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Older Posts »