Feed on

“Souls are fragile, [Commissario]. Beautiful, fragile creatures, made of glass, they let light and heat through, but they’re incapable of containing them. Souls are made of glass, and if you treat them too roughly, they’re able to crack and emit inaccurate reflections. Never underestimate the soul, Commissario. Have the courage to gaze deep into it, the surface is transparent, and it will let you see.” – Don Pierino of the Church of San Fernando.

cover glass soulsJust when you might think Maurizio de Giovanni’s Neapolitan mystery series cannot get much better, he outdoes himself, building on everything he has been doing in the past seven novels in this series and creating this one, his best so far.  Further developing the most delightful aspects of his characters and their relationships to date, he expands them in complex ways which I suspect every fan will celebrate. Here main character Commissario Ricciardi, who works in the Public Safety Division of the Royal Police Headquarters in Naples in the 1930s, during the reign of Benito Mussolini, continues to live up to his beliefs in true and equal justice, regardless of class. Though he is known professionally as Commissario Ricciardi, he is, in his private life, Baron Luigi Alfredo Ricciardi di Malomonte, a nobleman in his early thirties, whose parents died when he was young and who was brought up by his “Tata” Rosa, an old woman hired by his family to work for them. Like his deceased mother, he has inherited the ability to “hear” the last words of anyone who has been murdered, and he is totally dedicated to helping the victims of crime find rest for their tormented souls. He often associates with members of the political and social elite, their families, and those who control much of the economic and social life of the city, but he is painfully shy, uncertain about his inner identity.

author photo de giovanniIn this novel, author Maurizio de Giovanni retains all the characters and relationships which fans of the series already delight in, and his sense of humor is more obvious here than it is in several of his previous novels. Though the nature of the murder in question (that of a loan shark), its victim and killer, and the motivations for it are well developed, many readers will become more interested in the psychological and social interactions of the characters than in the mystery itself, a situation common in de Giovanni’s work. When the preceding novel, The Bottom of Your Heart, ended, Ricciardi was worried about the failing health of his “Tata” Rosa, and he had hired a young woman, Rosa’s niece Nelida, to help Rosa until her recent death and then to help him. Now Ricciardi finds himself truly alone, his last remaining intimate connection with his family’s past gone. Two women have been interested enough in him to try to “save” him from his self-imposed misery, but Ricciardi has been unable to love with his whole heart.   One, Livia, the exuberant widow of the world’s greatest tenor, moved to Naples to be closer to Ricciardi after the murder of her husband and still hopes to win his heart. The other, Enrica, a shy, young woman whose family lives in an apartment building across the way from his, is quietly in love with him, and she has had the blessing of Rosa to try to win his heart. Ricciardi, not now capable of loving her as he would like to, has recently observed a tall, blonde German officer making overtures toward her.

Bianca, Contess of Roccaspina, wife of the Count jailed at Pozzoreali Prison for the murder of Pira, denies he was present at the murder. Built in 1905, the prison holds 2000 - 2300 prisoners.

The Count of Roccaspina, jailed at Pogioreale Prison for the murder of Pira, denies he was present at the murder, and his wife knows, for sure, that he was not present, yet he has confessed and refuses to change his story. Built in 1905, the prison holds 2000 – 2300 prisoners.

Like all of the previous novels in the series, de Giovanni uses the seasons to give additional atmosphere to the novel. The previous novel, set during a very hot summer, has given way, with this novel, to a cool September. Fortunately, that means that the police caseload is lighter than usual – until a woman comes to see Ricciardi regarding the imprisonment of her husband for the murder of Piro, a loan shark. Her husband has confessed to the murder and has spent the past three months in jail, but his wife knows he was at home with her during the time of the murder. He refuses to recant, and the police regard the case as closed. With the Fascists in power and making more and more connections with the Germans, absolute rule is becoming more of a national goal, and no one wants this case to be reopened or reinvestigated. A secret police force also exists, operating apart from the official force and apart from the government, often used by those with the means to hire them for their own purposes. Ricciardi and his partner, Brigadier Raffaele Maione, a warm-hearted man with a large family, decide to take up the case secretly, Maione agreeing to help because he fears that Ricciardi might get in trouble with the government or secret police.

Both Cavalier Julio Columbo, Enrica's father, and Ricciardi seek the counsel of Don Pierino, the vice-parish priest of the Church of San Fernando.

Both Cavalier Julio Columbo, Enrica’s father, and Commissario Ricciardi seek the counsel of Don Pierino, the vice-parish priest of the Church of San Fernando.

De Giovanni, consummately aware of the need to provide background information to new readers, dedicates a page or two to each of the major players, including Ricciardi, Maione, Livia, Enrica, and Manfred, the German who is interested in marrying Enrica. In the course of the novel, several favorite characters also make the equivalent of “guest appearances,” often very funny and so amusing that even newcomers to the series will find them memorable. The first of the “old favorites” to reappear is Dr. Modo, the irreverent coroner who will say anything, even when he is not under the influence. Sensitive toward Ricciardi’s situation, he demands that Ricciardi meet him for dinner one night, at Ricciardi’s expense. He is still being accompanied by a small dog, the former pet of an orphan boy who died in The Day of the Dead. Not surprisingly, Maione also contacts the transvestite prostitute Bambinella, who often serves as an informant, and, as always, their scene is a classic. Don Pierino, the tiny priest from I Will Have Vengeance, the first novel in the series, becomes a counselor both for Enrica’s father and for Commissario Ricciardi. As for places, the Caffe Gambrinus, which appears in most of the novels in this series, is the place where Enrica’s father takes her for a serious chat, and where, to her horror, Enrica is also taken by her German suitor for dinner.

Caffe Gambrinus, where Enrica's father meets to chat with her, and where, ironically, her German suitor also takes her. It is a favorite meeting place, also for Ricciardi. Photo by Armando Mancini.

Caffe Gambrinus, where Enrica’s father meets to chat with her, and where, ironically, her German suitor also takes her. It is a favorite meeting place, also for Ricciardi. Photo by Armando Mancini.

Throughout, de Giovanni provides thought-provoking and atmospheric interludes, some of them enhanced by symbolic images, intensely emotive descriptions, and just enough atmospherics to add a whiff of otherworldliness to what is a fairly simple mystery. Readers of this novel will find plenty to love here, and the lack of many thriller moments will not be a problem for anyone familiar with the series. Ricciardi fans probably will not need a character list to keep track of the who’s who, though newcomers may find it helpful as a resource during the novel. Ultimately, the author’s message regarding the importance of following one’s dreams serves as a guide to the messages of this novel, regardless of the characters and their opinions. As one character says, “If there’s one thing to look out for in this strange city, it’s September nights. And the dreams that September nights bring.”

ALSO by De Giovanni:  I WILL HAVE VENGEANCE (#1),     BLOOD CURSE (#2),      EVERYONE IN THEIR PLACE (#3),      THE DAY OF THE DEAD (#4),     BY MY HAND (#5),     VIPER (#6),     THE BOTTOM OF YOUR HEART (#7).

Three other novels, by de Giovanni, not part of the Ricciardi series are also reviewed here:  THE CROCODILE,      THE BASTARDS OF PIZZOFALCONE,      DARKNESS FOR THE BASTARDS OF PIZZOFALCONE 

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo is from http://www.leconversazioni.it/

The photo of Poggioreale Prison, built in 1905, regularly holds 2000 – 2300 prisoners, with 700 guards.  https://atv.be/nieuws

The Church of San Fernando, where Don Pierino is Vice Parish Priest, is visited by both Enrica’s father and Commissario Ricciardi:  https://commons.wikimedia.org   Photo by Lalupa.

Caffe Gambrinus, another favorite spot in Naples, is a place where Ricciardi often has meals, where Enrica’s father meets her for a quiet lunch, and where Enrica’s new German beau takes her for dinner:  https://en.wikipedia.org/  Photo by Armando Mancini.

REVIEW. Historical, Italy, Mystery, Thriller, Neapolitain Noir, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Maurizio de Giovanni
Published by: Europa
Date Published: 07/18/2017
ISBN: 978-1609454098
Available in: Ebook Paperback


“Sunday, April 14, 2013: What you might call a stellar day for our [retirement] home yesterday: one stroke, one broken hip, and one near-asphyxiation on a butter cookie… Mrs. Sitta, seeing the toing and froing of ambulances, asked if bingo would be canceled. “Those of us who are fit shouldn’t have to suffer on account of those who are not,’ she brazenly declared. You’d almost wish that at her next bingo game she would have a stroke, break a hip, and choke to death on a cookie.”

cover henrik groenHendrik Groen, age 83 ¼, a resident of an assisted living facility in the Netherlands, decides on New Year’s Day, 2013, that he still doesn’t like old people. “Their walker shuffle, their unreasonable impatience, their endless complaints, their tea and cookies, their bellyaching.” He regards himself, however, as “civil, ingratiating, courteous, polite and helpful. Not because I really am all those things, but because I don’t have the balls to act differently.” In order to keep himself from spiraling into depression in the home, he has decided to give the world “an uncensored expose: a year in the life of the inmates of a care home in North Amsterdam.” In case he dies, he assures the reader, he will ask his best friend Evert Duiker to read some passages from the diary, though he worries about what he will do if Evert dies first. And, of course, Evert’s dentures are in poor shape, the result of a careless jab of a pool cue from another inmate, this one with cataracts. What follows is a diary unlike any other, as Hendrik Groen describes in detail just what life in a senior home in the Netherlands is like – the friendships and petty jealousies, the resentments, the full-time complaining, the physical ailments, and often, the sheer boredom of life which stretches on for some and is suddenly ended for others.

coronation King willem-aexander maxima

The televised coronation of King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima provided many hours of free entertainment to the residents of Groen’s assisted living residence.

The contentiousness between the residents and the governing board, with its seemingly petty and inexplicable decisions, adds to the overall hostility while, at the same time, creating a sense of oneness among the residents, the us-against-them movement. The outright refusal of the administration to allow residents to have a copy of the regulations adds to the tension. Several different levels of need exist here, and the supervisor does not communicate with residents on issues they care about. Evert, Hendrik’s best friend, lives in an independent apartment, while most others live in assisted units in which they take care of themselves but have their meals and most of their activities planned. A dementia unit assists those who need full-time help, and a medical unit handles end-of-life problems. Somehow, amidst all this, the facility is supposed to provide entertainment for these different groups, in addition to meeting their daily needs, though costs are an issue and cutbacks a constant fear. In the spring of 2013, Groen tells us, much of the entertainment was provided free on television, as the “Punch and Judy Show” of the coronation of new Dutch King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima took place.

MOTHER, WHEN WILL YOU FINALLY DIE?, a book by Martina Rosenberg, published in Germany in 2012, is mentioned by Groen for the hoopla it created about the author's struggle as primary caregiver for two elderly parents for nine years.

MOTHER, WHEN WILL YOU FINALLY DIE?, a book by Martina Rosenberg, published in Germany in 2012, is mentioned by Groen for the “hoopla” it created about the author’s nine-year struggle as primary caregiver for two elderly parents.

An international bestseller when it was published in Europe last year, Groen’s diary is written by an anonymous author (newly revealed, see Note at end), and it concerns itself with some of the same issues as were raised in the best-selling December, 2012 book, Mother, When Will You Finally Die?” by Martina Rosenberg, a memoir published in Germany.  Rosenberg’s book, to which Groen refers in his diary, is the true story of a family in which both parents become seriously ill, and their daughter, the author, tries to be their primary caregiver for nine years. The despairing title of the Rosenberg book is in direct contrast with the more upbeat, and often funny tale of old age from the point of view of the elderly residents of Groen’s care facility in the Netherlands. The two books, however, raise similar questions of how different countries respond to issues of an aging population. Groen provides some analysis, emphasizing that most of the residents of his home have state pensions and some savings, and American readers will find his statistics astonishing: “According to the latest research in the Netherlands, just 2.6 percent of those over sixty-five are poor. Sixty-three percent even say they’re managing to get by quite well.” When one compares those statistics with the 10 percent of American elderly living below the poverty line, the role of each country’s government in dealing with poor, old people becomes abundantly clear.

A mobility scooter, which Groen and his friends enjoy driving along the roads sometimes. Groen actually got a speeding ticket for his behavior.

Despite the real information and the statistics which make this book both a fascinating and important study of old age in a different country, the book’s primary purpose is to depict real life in this one care home, and the choice of recording it in a daily diary provides the reader with a plethora of insights and many humorous episodes. The diary is not didactic, and Groen’s musings on what might happen in American nursing homes if “the oldies walk around packing loaded…rifles,” shed additional light on one of this country’s issues. “I haven’t heard of any such mass shootings, but,” he says with tongue in cheek, “at least with all those weapons, you don’t have to jump through hoops to obtain that elusive euthanasia pill,” euthanasia being another issue confronted here.

In Groen’s facility, Groen and five friends form The Old But Not Dead Club, keep themselves busy by having each member take the others to an event – a museum, the casino, a winery, an artists’ village at the beach. Several members also keep themselves amused by riding mobility scooters, and Groen becomes something of a hero for getting a ticket for speeding on the road. Groen draws the line, however, regarding an outside program called “An Outing with Grandma,” in which local children are “rounded up to spend a day with some poor granny [or grandpa]” who would otherwise be alone. He has no interest in being in “the company of eleven- or twelve-year-old know-it-alls.”

Groen refuses to participate in the "Outing with Grandma/Grandpa," accompanied by schoolchildren, at the Madurodam Miniature Park.

Groen refuses to participate in the “Outing with Grandma/Grandpa,” accompanied by schoolchildren, at the Madurodam Miniature Park.

Ultimately, one of his friends begins to lose his toes from diabetes, another is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and still another has an almost fatal stroke. As Groen’s list of friends starts to decline, he tries to keep up his spirits, reminding himself that he might be able to go to the wine country next spring with some friends. He contemplates writing a novel, and though he has finished his diary, he decides he’d miss it if he stopped writing. He will go out to buy a new diary that very day. Thoughtful and often ironically funny, this is a book which should be read by anyone contemplating a move to a senior citizens’ facility or anyone whose parents may be contemplating it. The issues raised are real ones, from the clique-ishness of the population to the difficulties of finding time and space to be alone, and the problems of living, full-time, with people who may have nothing in common with you except age. Much to think about, and much to laugh about here.

Note:  In Feb., 2017, Dutch News revealed the identity of Hendrik Groen, here:  http://www.dutchnews.nl

On August 26, Groen announces the death of Jetty Paerl, a Dutch "wartime songbird" who broadcast from London during World War II on Radio Orange. Much beloved by the residents of senior care centers.

On August 26, Groen announces the death of Jetty Paerl, a Dutch “wartime songbird” who broadcast from London during World War II on Radio Orange. Much beloved by the residents of senior care centers.

Photos, in order: The coronation of King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima is featured on https://www.pinterest.com/

Mother, When Will You Finally Die? by Martina Rosenberg, is available in German on https://www.amazon.de

Hendrik Groen enjoys riding a mobility scooter on the roads for fun.  He makes a distinction between mobility scooters, rollators, and Cantas, all of which are also used by some residents of the home.  https://www.ebay.co.uk

Groen refuses to participate in a program called “An Outing with Grandma/Grandpa,” in which eleven- and twelve-year-old school children accompany residents of the home to places like the Maduro Miniature Park. http://www.3viajes.com/

Jetty Paerl, much beloved “wartime songbird,” died in August, 2013,  and is noted in Groen’s diary: “I doubt she will be mourned anywhere outside the nation’s nursing homes.”  http://elaguijonmusical.over-blog.es

REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, Literary, Netherlands, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues, Humor
Written by: Hendrik Groen
Published by: Grand Central Publishing
Date Published: 07/11/2017
ISBN: 978-1455542178
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

NOTE:  Each year I enjoy checking to see which reviews are getting the most attention on this website, and each year I am always surprised by the number of older books (and reviews) which remain in the Top Ten. For this new list I wanted to see which books published and reviewed in the past five years would be in the Top Ten if I removed the recurrent “old favorites.”

cover-ru-197x300Gone from this new, more restricted list are books that have almost become classics (at least on my website’s pages): Jo Nesbo’s The Redeemer (from Norway, 2011), Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel (from Nigeria, 2004), Kamila Shamsie’s Kartography (from Pakistan, 2004), Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors (from New Zealand, originally 1995), Louise Erdrich’s The Painted Drum (Native American, 2006), Naguib Mahfouz’s The Day the Leader was Killed (Egypt, 2000), and J. M. G. LeClezio’s The Prospector (from Mauritius, 2008), all of which are in the overall list for the Top Ten.

Here is the new list of favorite reviews, including three fairly recent ones on the list from last year, and seven new entries for books that have not been on the list before:

1.  Ru by Kim Thuy.  The author is a Vietnamese-born Canadian who appeared on the overall Favorites list last year for the first time, though the review of her book has been on this website since November, 2012. Her novel tells the story of a family of Vietnamese “boat people,” much like herself, who travel from Saigon to a refugee camp and eventually Canada, a book of great poignancy and love, featuring lively characters and real adventures.

cover-i-for-isobel2.  I for Isobel by Amy Witting, from Australia, originally written in 1979, republished in 2015, and reviewed Dec. 28, 2015. The novel focuses on a tough main character, a child who fills the novel with a kind of mental violence against both herself and those who “cross” her, as she endures a coming-of-age essentially alone.

3.   The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra, reviewed here Nov. 3, 2015. This work hovers between a novel and a collection of interrelated short stories set in Siberia, Chechnya, and Leningrad/St. Petersburg between 1937 and 2013.  Set during the period that begins after the death of Lenin, the earliest stories show the strict Communist Party rule, its control of all aspects of life and thinking, and the country’s economic hardships under Josef Stalin. Later stories make references to Nikita Krushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, and Mikhail Gorbachev, and the fall of Communism in the early 1990s.

cover-round-house-195x3004.    The Round House by Louise Erdrich, reviewed here Nov 9, 2012. Erdrich, a member of the Chippewa (Ojibwe) band of Native Americans, writes one of her most powerful and emotionally involving novels here. Though it starts as a crime story on the reservation, it quickly becomes an intense search for justice on all levels, developing into an examination of the lives of her characters, both old and young, as they face the challenges of their restricted lives on the reservation.

5.    Midnight Sun by Jo Nesbo, reviewed here Feb. 28, 2016, is the second of Nesbo’s “new style” of novels, set above the Arctic Circle in Norway. Much shorter, less violent, and much more literary than those in his Harry Hole series, it focuses on main character Ulf”s well-developed personality and the themes of what it means to be “good,” how one defines “right,” and whether life has any “real” meaning. Beautifully paced, far more introspective, and more thoughtful than what one finds in Nesbo’s first twelve thrillers, the novel maintains high interest and plenty of excitement. A welcome change from his early work – and welcome for him, too, it seems.

cover-the-door6.  The Door by Magda Szabo, reviewed here on Jan. 19, 2016, won Hungary’s top award for literature in 1978. Here Szabo lays bare her own values and her soul, creating a rich and intensely intimate examination of the fraught relationship between a character named Magdushka, a writer whose point of view controls this novel, and Emerence, her fiercely independent housekeeper-servant. Very moving.

7.  All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, reviewed here on Dec. 1, 2014, won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize and other major prizes. Set in France during World War II, this absorbing novel is filled with emotion, intense description, life-changing events, and characters one really cares about – a young blind girl and an equally young German boy who becomes a soldier to avoid working in the coal mines.  The book straddles that fine line between the romantic and the sentimental in its approach, and incorporates the magic of secret locked rooms, a magnificent jewel, and a curse. Fully engaging, even for those who may not think they can love such an emotion-packed novel.

8.   The Thcover-days-without-endirst by Jo Nesbo, reviewed May 22, 2017, represents Norwegian author Nesbo’s thriller style, much longer than Midnight Sun, and filled with violence, murder, and in this case, vampirism. Here Det. Harry Hole returns after a three-year hiatus, with his wife Rakel, who is now ill. He must find the murderer of a female lawyer who specializes in rape cases. Over forty characters, many of them familiar to the Nesbo fan, become involved in the search to find the vampirist killer. Suspenseful and addictive, despite the grotesque violence.

9.   Days Without End by Irish author Sebastian Barry, reviewed on Feb. 17, 2017, is one of my two favorite novels of the year so far, however dark it may be. Barry’s main character, a young boy, hides on a ship in port in Ireland to escape the Great Famine and ends up in New York, where he joins the US army and participates in both the Indian Wars and, immediately after, the American Civil War. Fellow author Kazuo Ishiguro describes this as “the most fascinating line-by-line first-person narration I’ve come across in years.”

cover-mikhail-and-margarita10.   Mikhail and Margarita by Julie Lekstrom Himes, reviewed here on May 1, 2017, is an enthralling book which pays honor to author Mikhail Bulgakov and his most famous novel, The Master and Margarita, written in the late 1920s, a dangerous time for writers who challenged the censors, as Bulgakov did. In this novel, author Bulgakov is himself a main character, one with whom the author obviously empathizes. Exciting, but serious, well developed, and consummately literary, the novel has an unforgettable grand finale. This novel is the other of the two books (with Days Without End) that are at the top of my Favorites List for 2017.

I hope that you, too, will be happy to see that several books reviewed less than six months ago are already mounting a challenge to books that have been on this list for six or seven years.  Kim Thuy’s Ru has been on the Favorites list for only two years, though the review was posted here originally in November 2012!  I’m rooting for some of these other new, young authors to find their audience and become as successful as many of the recognized favorites, and I’ll bet many other readers are, too.   Mary

Note:  Author Balli Kaur Jaswal was WINNER of the Best Young Australian Novelist, 2014, and FINALIST for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2015.

“[Nikki] was surrounded by women with their heads covered…[and] each one had a story. She could see herself addressing a room full of these Punjabi women. Her senses became overwhelmed with the colour of their kameezes, the sound of fabric rustling and pencils tapping, the smell of perfume and turmeric. Her purpose came into sharp focus. ‘Some people don’t even know about this place,’ she would say. ‘Let’s change that.’ Fiery-eyed and indignant, they would pen their stories for the whole world to read.”

cover punjabi widowsNikki, the twenty-two-year-old daughter of a Sikh immigrant to England, is feeling independent, having left university after deciding that the law courses she had been taking to please her father do not interest her. She has also found her own apartment and moved away from her mother and sister at the family flat. She does not wear the traditional clothing of the older generation, and she has no intention of accepting a traditional marriage, one negotiated by her family and agreed to by a groom’s family. Without credentials she can use for a professional career, she is now working nights at O’Reilly’s, a small bar, which would horrify her mother and her recently deceased father. Fearing that the bar might be getting ready to go out of business, she applies for a part-time teaching job with the Sikh Community Association, connected with the enormous Gurdwara Temple, which is the center of activity in the Southall section of London. When she gets the job, she quickly learns that most of the women who have signed up for her writing course are illiterate, both in English and in the language of the Punjab. They are also widows of varying ages, women who have lost their place in the social fabric of their culture following the deaths or disappearances of their husbands. Many speak little English, and Nikki’s knowledge of Punjabi is limited.

author photoAs the class begins, four widows revolt, having no interest in learning the alphabet and sentence structure when they want to write stories. Nikki agrees to let them tell their stories and fantasies to one member of the class who will act as secretary and record them for everyone to read. What follows is a unique book, difficult to fit into any genre, because it pushes the limits of so many traditional story forms. In answer to the unstated questions of readers of this review, yes, the widows do tell erotic stories, very erotic stories, which become their form of rebellion against all the strictures, prohibitions, and required behaviors which have so governed their lives and kept them under the control of their male dominated society. As they take turns telling stories, the classes become raucous, as years of self-control and obedience dissolve into fantasies as the Punjabi widows express their yearning for pleasures which have been denied to them. Soon their behavior and their excitement comes to the attention of the female director of the community association, who is already keeping an eye on Nikki for her failure to act subservient and obey her directives, and when the participants’ enthusiasm for the classes draws in new people and leads to some of the stories being circulated outside of class, big trouble occurs.

gurdwara southall

Gurdwara, Southall, the center of Sikh life.

Other plot lines push the boundaries of other genres. Nikki and her sister Mindi participate in a domestic drama in which Mindi expects Nikki to help her as Mindi tries to negotiate a traditional marriage. At the same time Nikki’s mother is trying to get Nikki to return home and become a well-behaved daughter once again. When Nikki meets a young Punjabi man who is also the son of immigrants and who shares her beliefs, the novel becomes a romance, complete with all the usual complications. The terrible memories of one participant, whose daughter Maya has died under suspicious circumstances, turn the novel into a mystery, and the back story of the daughter suggests that her death might have been an honor killing. Social and political issues emerge as ultra-conservative males, offended by these newly “independent” females, seek to ensure the preservation of the “old ways” and the subservience of the women of the culture through a group known as The Brothers.   Suspicious deaths occur. Some of the women become involved with a group called Fem Fighters and set themselves up for retaliation by threatened males who will stop at nothing.

One of the many saree shops in Southall, which Nikki enjoys for shopping.

One of the many saree shops in Southall.

The author rotates scenes from each of these different genres to create non-stop action. The erotic stories from the beginning continue, in italics, throughout the novel, as new scenes reveal Nikki’s family situation, her own love story, her sister’s more traditional love story, the developing mystery regarding the death of Maya, all the complications of the writing class and its existence, and the sensitivities of the males who feel threatened by the Punjabi’s women’s growing independence, leading to a grand finale. This very “full,” well-developed novel does much more than highlight erotic fantasies as it explores cultural traditions, issues of immigration, some immigrants’ wishes to retain their old traditions while living in a new country, and the difficulties of those who wish to participate in the life of the new country while still honoring the traditions of the old. Honor is a big part of this novel, and respect is a continuing goal.

As the novel opens, Nikki remembers when she wanted Beatrix Potter's Journals, something that sparked an argument with her parents. At the conclusion of the novel, this book, which she had seen in Delhi, is mentioned once again.

As the novel opens, Nikki remembers when she wanted Beatrix Potter’s Journals, something that sparked an argument with her parents. At the conclusion of the novel, this book, which she had seen in Delhi, is mentioned once again.

Author Balli Kaur Jaswal, born in Singapore, traveled the world with her family during her father’s tenure at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and her knowledge of the lives of Punjabi Sikhs in a place like Southall is based on her own experience living there. Her broad background in many other cultures, including those of Japan, Russia, the Philippines, Turkey, Australia, the UK, and the US make her particularly sensitive to the ways that myriad cultures respond to different stimuli, and much of her novel reflects profound sensitivities to cultural differences. Few American readers will be offended or shocked by the eroticism of the stories here, but I find myself wondering why these repressed Punjabi widows have no qualms about sharing the most intimate aspects of their private lives, putting the details in writing, and having them circulate throughout the community, albeit primarily within the female community. These women are traditional, wear traditional clothing, and adhere to the traditional Punjabi and Sikh behaviors, and their delight in expressing their sexual fantasies with a potentially wide audience does not feel realistic to me. Perhaps the fact that many of them cannot read the details of the fantasies as they are recorded by the class secretary would be one explanation, but I found myself wondering why their fantasies, developed and shared, would create enough of a feeling of freedom to make so many other cultural inhibitions disappear.

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

Gurdwara, Southall, the center of Sikh life in London, is a still photo from https://www.youtube.com/

Nikki goes shopping in Southall and enjoys the saree shops there:  https://www.yell.com/457855/

As the novel opens, Nikki remembers when she wanted Beatrix Potter’s Journals, something that sparked an argument with her parents. At the conclusion of the novel, this book, which she had seen in Delhi, regains attention.  Source:  Amazon.co.uk.

REVIEW. England, Literary, Social and Political Issues, Punjab, immigrants
Written by: Balli Kaur Jaswal
Published by: William Morrow
Date Published: 06/13/2017
ISBN: 978-0062645128
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“My father did not want me. I came to that knowledge when I was quite young, even before I understood what I was being deprived of and a long time before I could guess the reason for it. In some ways not understanding was a mercy. If this knowledge had come to me when I was older, I might have known how to live with it better but that would probably have been by pretending and hating.”—Salim.

cover gravel heart The author of eight previous novels, many of which have been nominated for international prizes, Abdulrazak Gurnah, from Zanzibar, specializes in novels which reflect a sense of alienation and loss as a person living, first, under the British colonial rule of his country, then later living under Zanzibar’s revolutionary rule after a coup following independence, and finally living in Britain itself. His characters often reflect similar dislocations, growing up and living without the pride one expects for the place where they grew up or much sense of belonging elsewhere within the world order. Sometimes at a loss and uncertain what will happen next politically, they may be unsure of how to go about traversing the multitude of competing influences on their lives and on the people they love. In this novel Gurnah examines these feelings through the life of Salim, a young man whose early childhood is upended when his father inexplicably leaves his mother and the home Salim thought was happy in Zanzibar and moves elsewhere, while his mother begins to spend time with another man. His alienation becomes more complicated as time passes.

author photo gurnahDespite the separation, his mother continues to prepare his father’s meals and deliver them to his new address. A few years later, when Salim is old enough, he is given the task of delivering the daily meals. Gradually, the contrast between the life Salim thought he was living and life as it has become emerges more clearly. His father, who used to be a clerk for the Water Authority finds work in a market stall or just sits in his room after the separation. “For a long time I did not know what had gone wrong,” Salim states, “and after a while I stopped asking. There was so much I did not know.” Attending regular school in the morning, he attends Koran school in the afternoon. His biggest achievement in school is praise for a story he made up when he had nothing to offer in response to the assignment “what did you do on your holidays?” His “prize” from the headmaster was a photograph of his father’s father, a teacher, who lost his job in the revolution of 1963 and moved to Dubai. His mother’s father, a college graduate with a degree in Public Health, hung out with the anti-colonials during the British rule. Unfortunately, he allied himself with the wrong revolutionary party and would later be arrested and disappear in the revolution. The family’s land and house were confiscated.

University College, Dublin, where Amir attended a three-year program.

University College, Dublin, where Amir attended a three-year program.

Though both sides of his family suffered in past generations, Salim accepted these stories as normal, just as he did the stories of his parents’ courtship and early marriage. Naïve regarding all the political pressures with which Zanzibar had been dealing over the years of his childhood, Salim accepts what is happening without much questioning, leaving him vulnerable, willing to be on the “side” of whoever he lives with. His uncle Amir becomes a key to his later life when Amir begins to work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and soon becomes much wealthier, eventually being selected to attend a three-year International Relations course at University College, Dublin. His grand wedding to the daughter of the former vice-president, upon his return to Zanzibar, leads to a three-year mission with the consulate of Bombay, and his achievements appear to Salim to be exemplary. When real life at home becomes far more complicated for Salim, he readily accepts his uncle Amir’s offer of a chance to attend school in London.

Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania, is semi-independent

Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania, is semi-independent. Click on map, then double-click to enlarge.

This summary provides a rough outline of Part I, but that section is not as straightforward as it may appear here. Sophisticated readers will read between the lines and ask questions which Salim is not capable of asking, and they will draw conclusions about some other characters which never cross Salim’s mind. Part II details Salim’s experiences in London and at college, where he is taking a course laid out for him, not of his own choosing. Living with three Africans at the “Organization of African Unity,” he begins to make friends, and find some kindness and personal guidance from Mr. Mgeni, his landlord. He writes long, heartfelt letters to his mother but keeps most of them in a journal, making his inner life become real for the reader though he does not often share it with his mother. He even writes to his father but, again, does not mail the letter. “What might be intended as simple curiosity might feel like a demand for a confession,” he believes. “You don’t know what you might release by asking a stupid question. It was best to leave people to their silences,” Salim believes.

Vanessa and Corin Redgrave star in Chekhov's THE CHERRY ORCHARD in 2000. Salim meets his first real love in the theatre.

Vanessa and Corin Redgrave star in Chekhov’s THE CHERRY ORCHARD in 2000. Salim meets his first real love at this play in London.

After seven years, Salim is still in England, learning about life, relationships, and the difficulties of negotiating both. On one memorable night, he goes to the National Theatre to see Vanessa and Colin Redgrave in The Cherry Orchard. A young woman sits beside him, and she becomes the center of his days after that, his first love. Part III details his return to Zanzibar for the first time in seven years. His sister Munira is already in college, and when he returns to his father’s flat, he learns his father’s story for the first time, one of the most involving stories of the novel. Pressures mount for Salim to stay in Zanzibar with the family, and he must decide on his own what will be best, not only for his family but, for the first time, for himself, too. He admits that he does not know “whether to stay or go back to that incomplete life…[which will be] debilitating and which I fear will shrivel me up…I have not done anything these past years, or nothing much.”

Ismaili Jamatkhana Zanz.

Salim’s sister lives in a flat across from the Ismaili Jamatkhana, recently restored by the Aga Khan.  Salim notes the stunning doors.

Old-fashioned in many ways, Gurnah’s novel tells itself chronologically, except for some background story about Salim’s parents and their families, and he keeps that straightforward.   There are no flights of excited thought or of the imagination. In fact, one of Salim’s biggest problems is his relative lack of imagination, his failure to engage. Still Gurnah manages to make the novel appealing to the reader and to make Salim’s receptivity to his naturalization process in England both understandable and empathetic. Salim’s diaries give the reader information that s/he could not gain in the natural course of the narrative and expands the thematic emphasis on families, love, responsibility, and plain honesty. The brief final chapter connects the action here to a Shakespearean play, a telling coda to the story of a man searching to know who he is in the grand scheme of life.


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

University College, Dublin, where Amir attended a three-year program.  http://www.artstor.org

Zanzibar is located off the eastern shore of Tanzania, just north of Dar es Salaam.  https://www.pinterest.com/

Vanessa Redgrave and brother Corin starred in THE CHERRY ORCHARD in London in 2000.  Salim attended and met the girl who became the first real love of his life.   http://www.photostage.co.uk

Ismail Jamatkhana, restored by the Aga Khan, interests Salim for its wonderful door.  His sister lives across the street from this when she is in college.  http://www.imgrum.org/

REVIEW. Historical, Literary, Social and Political Issues, Tanzania, Zanzibar
Written by: Abdulrazak Gurnah
Published by: Bloomsbury
Date Published: 05/04/2017
ISBN: 978-1632868138
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »