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MOST POPULAR REVIEWS ON THIS WEBSITE, December, 2019

cover-past-the-shallowsNOTE:  Each year I like to see which reviews are the most popular on this website, and each year I find some surprises.  Because the site ranks books and reviews by their total number of hits over time, older books which have been on the site for years have had more opportunity to accumulate many hits.  Newer books tend to be far down in the list, with a few lucky ones eventually making it to the Top 25 as the years pass.

Here is the list some of the old favorites which have been in the Top 25 for five or more years. Newer books which are performing particularly well and may one day become Top 25 Books are listed separately following the “oldies.”

The most popular “OLD” books for this year, still in the Top 25 of all books visited:

#1 overall: Favel Parrett’s PAST THE SHALLOWS, a family drama set in Tasmania.  On the list since 2014 when the review was posted, this book seems to be the #1 book every time I check the DAILY stats, and it makes me wonder if this family drama cover-ru-197x300set on the southernmost island at the end of the Australian continent is being taught in the schools in Australia andTasmania.  It has more than seven times the number of hits of any other book listed here, including all the books and reviews here for Jo Nesbo’s work!

#2.  Helon Habila’s WAITING FOR AN ANGEL, from Nigeria, has been a favorite since this site began in 2011 and remains in the #2 position.

#4, overall:   Jo Nesbos’s THE REDEEMER from Feb. 2011.

#5.  Kim Thuy’s RU, the story of Vietnamese boat people arriving in Canada, originally posted in  November, 2012.

#6.  Katcover-kartographye Atkinson’s STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG, from March 2011, is #6 overall

#15.  Kamila Shamsie’s KARTOGRAPHY, set in Pakistan, was posted in January, 2011.

#18, overall.  Patrick White’s VOSS, a classic by this major writer from Australia, was posted in Dec, 2017, and is the story of the settlement of western Australia.

#21.   Roberto Bolano’s THE INSUFFERABLE GAUCHO, a terrific collection of stories, has been in the top 25 reviews since it was posted when the site opened.

#22.  Alan Bennett’s THE UNCOMMON READER, about the Queen’s discovery of a new kind of reading experience, has also been on the site since the beginning.

#23. Gerald Durrell, A ZOO IN MY LUGGAGE, set in Cameroon, is another review from early 2011.

cover-uncommon-readerBooks on the Site for Fewer than Five Years and now in the Top 25 of all Reviews.

If I remove the ten reviews above and all others which have been on the site for five years or more, the newer books, which have had less time to accumulate hits, move up the list dramatically.  Here is the separate ranking of the books which would be on the Top Ten list if all reviews five or more years old were removed. (Separate overall listings are included here in parentheses to show rankings among all books, regardless of age and years on the site.)

#1.  Favel Parrett’s PAST THE SHALLOWS, set in Tasmania, remains #1, among all books reviewed within the past five years.  (#1 overall)

#2.  Jo Nesbo’s recent novel, THE THIRST,  set in Norway, was reviewed here in May, 2017.  This is one of the Olav Johanssen novels, MUCH shorter than the usual Harry Hole novels, and much more interesting for many readers, including me. (Now #3 on overall list )

#3.  Irmgard Keucover-tommy-orange-there-there-2n’s THE ARTIFICIAL SILK GIRL, posted in June, 2015, is set in pre-Nazi Germany in 1932 and was a book that has been recently been rediscovered, after it was supposedly purged by the Nazis. (Now #12, overall, in the Top 25, not in the Top Ten books yet.)

#4.  Tommy Orange’s THERE, THERE, a book by a Native American who lives in the city, focuses on the difficulty of maintaining their culture in a city foreign to their original beliefs – the last stop on the road to acculturation, the author fears.  Posted in July, 2018.  (This review/book has made great strides – now #13 on the overall list for a book that did not appear here till a year ago.)

#5.  Esi Edugyan’s WASHINGTON BLACK, from November, 2018, is the story of a slave who escapes a cruel master in Barbados when he is freed, and learns how to survive and prosper in an alien world in Canada, England, and even Marrakesh.  Posted Nov. 2018. (#14 on the present overall list)

cover-henrik-groen#6. Hendrik Groen’s THE SECRET DIARY OF HENDRIK GROEN, AGE 83 1/4, set in the Netherlands, offers a wonderfully incisive and often very funny look at life in a senior home.  On its way to becoming a classic.  From July 2017. (Now #16 on the overall list)

#7.  Patrick Modiano’s SO YOU DON’T GET LOST IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD is a murder mystery focused on memories and identity connected with an old man who still lives in the house where the murder took place.  From October 2015.  (#17 on the overall list)

#8.  William Boyd’s LOVE IS BLIND, the story of a Scottish piano tuner who is consumed with his love for a married woman whom he follows throughout Europe and especially Russia.  Feels like a well-done Russian romance.  From October, 2018. (#19 on the overall list.)

  cover-knife#9.  Jo Nesbo’s latest (and I think best) thriller, THE KNIFE, concerns the death of someone close to Harry Hole, with beautifully developed themes, flawless pacing,  intriguing and repeating subordinate characters, imaginative plotting, unrelenting dark atmosphere, and plot twists – one after another – after another.  From August 2019. (#20 on the overall list, though the review has been posted for only four months. Look for this one to be in the Top Ten overall next year.)

#10. Simon Mawer’s PRAGUE SPRING is set during 1968, a time in which Russian influence has waned and a broader view of socialism and some new freedoms are being celebrated by students and political writers in Prague.  Then the Prague Spring is cancelled by the sudden arrival of half a million Warsaw Pact troops led by the Soviet Union. Posted December, 2018.  (#26 on the overall list)

Hope you have enjoyed this look at the stats for this website and the look forward for some of the recent books and reviews we have posted here.  Best, Mary

Burhan Sonmez–LABYRINTH

“He was lucky, that’s what they said.  Only one fracture.  His body had suffered no other injuries.  Memory loss doesn’t count as a bodily injury.  He raises his eyes and looks at his face.  The face he met a week ago.  It’s that new.  Hello stranger, he says.  He can tell from its lip movements that the face in the mirror is answering him with the same words.  Just like last night.” 

cover SonmezBurhan LabyrinthAwaking in an Istanbul hospital after jumping from the Bosphorus Bridge in a failed suicide attempt, young blues singer-musician Boratin has no memory of his life – or why he chose suicide as a way out.  The bridge is five hundred feet high, and fewer than a handful of people have survived the jump since the bridge was built in the early 1970s, but Boratin is one of the “lucky” ones – only one rib is broken.  His biggest problem is that he has total amnesia.  He does not recognize his own face in the mirror, has no memory of his own name, knows no one who visits him, and has no past.  Even his apartment seems so unfamiliar that he even questions his own taste in the furnishings.  For him, walking through the rooms, is like “exploring a museum, gingerly picking his way around the ornaments and guitars.”  Addressing his memory of the doctor who released him from the hospital, he confesses that “my mind, which hasn’t got a single word about myself in it, is bursting with facts about other things.  The names of ancient philosophers, the colors of soccer teams, the words of the first astronaut who went to the moon.  I can’t find any clues leading to myself in my cache.  I can’t even remember my name.  You told me that was my name, and I accepted it.”

The Bosphorus Bridge, built 1970 - 1973.

The Bosphorus Bridge, built 1970 – 1973, is five hundred feet above the water.  It connects Europe and Asia.

The ringing of the telephone leads him into a quandary.  If he answers, “an unfamiliar voice will ask me how I am,” Boratin thinks, and though he wants to ask for help, he still does not understand how he ended up where he is and why.  He decides not to answer.  Feeling safer where he is, he decides to familiarize himself with his living quarters and its possessions, though he is confused because everything in the house is “elderly,” and he sees the contents as belonging to death.  “Have I forgotten my house,” he wonders, “or has it forgotten me?”  Not even the guitars, the record player, and the album covers, including one called “Submarine,” stimulate his memory.  The arrival at his door of Bek, a friend whom he learns is a member of the band to which he belonged, starts him on his journey to recover his life.  As he does so, the reader, too, learns about Boratin’s life, starting with the fact that “Submarine” is the name of his own band.

Blues singer Bessie Smith, an idol of Boratin.

Blues singer Bessie Smith, an idol of Boratin.

What follows is Boratin’s search for himself, starting with a solitary trip to a nearby bookstore and a walk around Istanbul with Bek.  Here author Burhan Sonmez hits his stride as he recreates some of the Boratin’s questions, the answers from Bek, and the stream-of-consciousness thoughts that Boratin holds privately within himself.  All these observations occur within pages of shifting dialogue between the two men, along with Boratin’s personal observations and his inner conflicts.  The customary paragraphing for dialogue and changes of subjects is not observed here, as one sentence by Boratin may be followed by the comment of another speaker, with that comment followed by a recollection by Boratin, all within the same paragraph.  The changing points of view are clear and uncomplicated, however, even as they change within the packed pages.  Back home, he realizes that he recognizes the voice of blues singer Bessie Smith, that he understands English, and that a voice on the phone, which he finally answers, is that of his sister, whose name he remembers.

As he walks around Istanbul with Bek, Boratin sees and recognizes the Galata Tower.

As he walks around Istanbul with Bek, Boratin sees and recognizes the Galata Tower.

An appointment with his doctor encourages Boratin to think back once again as he wonders what would make someone try to end his life, but then he recalls the grocer on the corner near his apartment coming up to him on his return to squeeze his hand and thank him profusely for saving his daughter’s life by helping her to pass her exams.  He remembers nothing about this.  He then tells the doctor the story of a forty-leg centipede who could do everything he wanted as he moved with consummate grace,  until someone asks it,  “Which leg do you use to take such elegant steps?  Do you use your seventh right leg first, followed by your fourteenth left leg?  And do you then raise your twenty-first right leg and place your thirty-second left leg on the ground?”  Suddenly the centipede’s legs become all entangled and he cannot move, a symbol of the issues Boratin himself has been facing. 

Boratin takes a taxi to the Hydarpasa Train Station, closed after a fire in 2010, though still a tourist site, causes Boratin to rethink his plans.

Boratin takes a taxi to the Haydarpasa Train Station, which, though still a tourist site, has been closed after a fire in 2010, causing Boratin to rethink his plans.

Parallel stories that Boratin recalls include the fruitless search of a man named Serka for a fiancee, for whom he already has a ring, adding to the sense of frustration which Boratin feels.  Stories evolve of the pharaoh and the philosopher, of a child begging for food, of sadistic children killing a cat, of calling a wrong number on the phone and wondering not who, but what, he is.  Get-togethers with the band members at a tavern remind Boratin that another member of the band thought of suicide just a year ago, and he wonders if his ex-girlfriend may hold a key to some of his earlier memories.  He becomes frustrated at the fact that while he has been searching for his identity and his past, the seasons have not changed.  It is still autumn, a season which suggests that Boratin still has a lot of work to do if he is ever to regain a semblance of new life.   Ultimately, he decides to take a trip by train, only to discover that the train station has been closed for years following a fire in 2010, and that he needs to rethink his plans.

Author Burhan Sonmez.

Author Burhan Sonmez.

Almost plotless, this short novel recreates the ultimate crisis of identity as it happens to a twenty-eight-year-old musician, who obviously had problems before his jump off the Bosphorus Bridge.  As Boratin tries to figure out who he is so he can revisit his past and perhaps connect it to a new present, the author raises many questions about time, place, history, philosophy, psychology, life, death, and the desire of people to relate to each other in positive ways.  The novel’s progress through short episodes, and the reactions of Boratin to them, allow the reader to identify with him, and through him to see some of life’s grandest themes through a completely new point of view.  The extent to which the past controls the present, and the present controls the future takes on new meaning in this remarkable novel.  Or as Boratin says in one of his songs, “Wake up, bare your face to the rain on the window./ If growin’ used to it is another name for death/ Don’t let that bare old violet in your hair fade and wear you down.”

Photos.  The Bosphorus Bridge connecting Europe and Asia, was built in 1970 – 1973 and is five hundred feet above the water.  Only a handful of people have ever survived a suicide attempt from this bridge.  https://commons.wikimedia.org

Blues singer Bessie Smith is an idol of Boratin.  Her photo is here:  https://news.allaboutjazz.com/

The Galata Tower is a landmark which Boratin recognizes as he is touring the city with Bek.  https://www.tripadvisor.com

Though it is still a tourist destination, the Haydarpasa Train Station has been closed for trains since 2010, and Boratin has not realized that he cannot take a train from there.  He must change his plans.  https://www.dailymail.co.uk/

The photo of author Burhan Sonmez appears on https://thewire.in/books

LABYRINTH
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Experimental, Exploration, Literary, Psychological study, Turkey
Written by: BURHAN SONMEZ
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 11/19/2019
ISBN: 978-1590510988
Available in: Ebook Paperback

“It’s difficult to locate the Kusakado grave, hidden in a corner among many other intricate tombstones….Three small new gravestones stand huddled together in a shallow depression in the hillside.  To the right is Ippei’s grave.  To the left of that, Koji’s, and in the center lies Yuko’s.  That Yuko’s grave appears charming and somewhat brilliant even in the twilight is because only hers is a living monument – a reserved burial plot – with her posthumous Buddhist name painted in bright vermilion.” – from the Prologue.

cover frolic beastsAmong the most prolific novelists and playwrights in Japanese history, Yukio Mishima wrote thirty-four novels, fifty plays, twenty-five books of short stories, and many books of essays, before he committed ritual suicide after he failed in a coup attempt in Japan in 1970, when he was forty-five.  This novel, written in 1961, now translated by Andrew Clare into English for the first time, is one of his early novels, quite different from his major work, the Sea of Fertility tetralogy, which traces Japanese history throughout the twentieth century.  Here in a novel which has been described as a parallel to Japanese noh drama, with its wooden masks, Mishima writes an unusual psychological novel which begins with the ending, as the three main characters see themselves as “three fish caught up in a net…a net of sin.”  As they pose for a picture in the small fishing port of Iro in West Izu, on a peninsula to the west of Tokyo, the reader has already become aware of “a final wretched incident,” the appearance of “droplets of blood [on the] dazzingly reflective surface of the concrete,” the “anguish” that Yuko, the main female character, feels within, and her comment about how “marvelous it would be to erect a tomb like this – the three of us lined up together.” 

Harbor at Iro, to which Koji returns after prison. Mt. Fuji looms in the distance.

Harbor at Iro, to which Koji returns after prison. Mt. Fuji looms in the distance.

Chapter 1 begins as a flashback with Koji, a young, former college student and one of the main characters, appearing on the upper deck of a boat.  Experiencing the morning sun and the “fragmented sunlight of his memories,” Koji recalls prison, constantly reminding himself that he has repented. “I am a different person now,” he asserts, before recalling “the day of the quarrel in the front garden of the hospital” which preceded a “night of bloodshed,” two years ago.  Only one person is waiting for him when the boat arrives at the village where he lives – Yuko, with her blue parasol, who has decided to care for Koji, whom she sees as “a forlorn orphan.”  Ironically, she is the wife of the third main character Ippei, the man Koji tried to kill  and who now remains at home in need of full-time care.  Surprisingly, Koji has agreed to live with them, helping Yuko keep the family greenhouse in operation.  Yuko’s own role in the relationship among the three characters is central, of course, but her feelings are often inconsistent, perhaps a result of the “masks” she wears in her own relationships and the roles she plays as a wife.  Ippei, now in his forties, had been a lecturer at a private university, where he was an expert in German literature, and he often hired his students, like Koji, to work in the western ceramics shop he inherited from his parents.

author photo

Author Yukio Mishima (1925 – 1970)

In an even earlier flashback, Koji, a “young, hot-headed youth,” first came to Ippei’s attention because of Koji’s tendency to fight, which Ippei regarded as “lighthearted… quarrelsome, and possibly extremely romantic.”  Ippei advises Koji that “It’s a good thing to be able to fight and express your anger.  The future of the world is all but in your hands.  After that, ‘old age is all that awaits you.’ ”  In an odd exchange, Ippei comments to Koji, who has not yet met Ippei’s wife Yuko, that she’s “a real odd case.  I’ve yet to meet a stranger girl.”  She is never jealous, despite Ippei’s many extramarital affairs, and she “doesn’t frighten at all,” yet she “loves Ippei terribly….It’s always the same gloomy, overly serious, stubborn frontal attack…it’s her army of love.”  Concluding that Ippei is worthless and “insubstantial” for his beliefs, Koji falls hopelessly in love with Yuko before he has even met her, and “absorbed in his fantasy, he formed an exceedingly simple schematic picture in his mind.”  First of all,  the author says, “there was a miserable, despairing woman.  Then there was a self-indulgent, heartless husband.  And last, a hot -blooded, sympathetic young man.  And with that the scenario was complete,” an over-simplification of the plot and motivations, to say the least.

trad. japanese cemetery 2

Traditional cemetery. Yuko arranges for the three main characters to be buried in adjacent graves and purchases the space well ahead of her own death.

With a chronology which moves back and forth, before and after the critical fight and its aftermath, which sent Koji to prison for two years, the relationships among the main characters evolve even more fully, often revealed by what they say, more than by what they do. Bits of information are dropped into episodes without comment or explanation, increasing the suspense and the reader’s interests, at the risk of confusion.  Ippei is sometimes cruel and even violent, and Koji, who has never had a real home, becomes frantically protective of Yuko and obsessively protective.  She, in turn, tries to live up to her cultural and personal responsibilities and frustrates both Koji and Ippei with her behavior, which they often find unpredictable.  The tension on all sides becomes palpable.  The arrival of some new characters adds new elements to the relationships – love, hate, jealousy, resentment, obsession, and guilt – as viewpoints get expanded.  As a typhoon approaches, a “slight rearrangement in the pattern of living” in the household takes place, and Koji falls into a state of despair with “hurricane-like speed,” as nature exerts its “pathetic fallacy.”  In his final confrontation with he handicapped Ippei, Koji launches a verbal attack about Ippei’s possible motivations, and both reveal what they really want from life.

Confederate Rose, a hibiscus whick features in the final pages of the novel.

Confederate Rose, a hibiscus which features in the final pages of the novel.

It is the Epilogue, in which author Yukio Mishima explains the origins of this story, which ultimately provides closure for the reader by referring back to the information previously revealed in the Prologue, expanding and explaining the characters, their “reality,” and the desire to be buried all together.  According to Mishima’s translator, Andrew Clare, in his Translator’s Note, Mishima modeled this novel on the Noh play Motomezuka as a “parody.”  The method by which the resolution is achieved here is clumsy and feels contrived, however, suggesting that the author was not sure how to resolve the action in a conclusion consistent with both noh drama and all the psychological detail he has created.  By resorting to an almost journalistic explanation of facts and history to get him out of the difficulties he was facing creatively with the story, the author himself becomes the “deus ex machina” needed to tie up all the loose ends, an ending far different from the sure-handed conclusions within other novels by Mishima.

ALSO by Mishima:    LIFE FOR SALE,     RUNAWAY HORSES (#2, Sea of Fertility Tetralogy)     SPRING SNOW (#1, Sea of Fertility Tetralogy)    THE TEMPLE OF DAWN (#3, Sea of Fertility Tetralogy),     STAR

Lighthouse at the entrance to the harbor at Iro.

Lighthouse at the entrance to the harbor at Iro.

Photos.  The harbor at Iro, on a peninsula west of Tokyo, is where Koji lands following his stint in prison.  https://www.booking.com

The author’s photo appears on https://www.gettyimages.com/

Traditional Japanese cemetery in the woods, where Yuko arranges for all three of the main characters to be buried together:  https://www.alamy.com/

The Confederate Rose hibiscus features in the last pages of the novel:  https://www.my-photo-gallery.com/

The Lighthouse at the harbor to Iro may be found on https://www.ibiblio.org

THE FROLIC OF THE BEASTS
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Classic Novel, Experimental, Japan, Literary, Psychological study
Written by: Yukio Mishima
Published by: Vintage International
Date Published: 11/27/2018
ISBN: 978-0525434153
Available in: Ebook Paperback

“Kabir entered the room and approached his wife, and within a foot from her was struck by a hit of perfume that had him sneezing.  Anwara backed away from him, moving toward the dressing table where she sat down on the small bench, lifted a silver-plated brush, and began drawing it through her hair.  Teary-eyed, Kabir moved behind her.  The two of them were framed in the oval mirror of the dressing table like a formal portrait, the pristine lady and her unkempt charmer.”

cover ZamanNadeem, up in the man houseFrom the opening story of the same name, Up in the Main House entertains and enlightens the reader with stories of life in modern day Bangladesh which recall the tales of servants and their privileged employers from colonial England years ago.  Here, however, author Nadeem Zaman focuses on the lives of domestic employees in the capital city of Dhaka, most of them working for families of wealth who have employed them for nearly all of their lives.  As in the typical British “upstairs” and “downstairs” stories, the servants often have clearer visions of what really matters and closer relationships with each other than what the reader usually sees from the often absent “upstairs” owners of these houses and their friends. As the servants share their daily lives and do their daily work, they reveal their genuine emotions and insights into real life.  Vividly described and more casual than the formal stories of upperclass British servants, the lives of these Bangladeshi workers and their values become far more intimate and genuinely real than what most readers will expect, their lives complicated primarily by their sense of position regarding their employers.

Dhaka's Banani Graveyard, now "completely full."

Dhaka’s Banani Graveyard, now “completely full.”

The first story, “Up in the Main House,” from which the opening quotation is taken, features the love story of Kabir and Anwara, his wife, who are domestic servants, and their much older friend Ramzan, the caretaker of the large property from which their bosses will be away for at least a week.  While continuing to live up to their household responsibilities, the servants are still enjoying their time off, especially Anwara.  Early one evening, soon after their employers have left, Kabir enters the house at night to find Anwara in the master bedroom, reeking of her mistress’s perfume, standing in front of the full-size mirror next to the dressing table, and posing in one of her mistress’s evening costumes. “[Anwara] was exactly as she believed herself to be…a privileged, pampered ingenue whose graces were the envy of a thousand of her peers…whose affection would be the ultimate trophy of countless suitors, and the only thing she owed the world was to go on existing exactly as she was.”  Leaving her to her fantasies, Kabir returns to Ramzan, who talks of the changes that have taken place in Dhaka during his lifetime, with the impossible traffic, the crowded sidewalks, and even the Banani Cemetery, now completely full.  A crisis in which a young boy is caught on the wrong side of the perimeter wall, which he had climbed thinking he might be able to steal something, reveals Ramzan’s real sense of  values and responsibility, at the same time that it also reveals Kabir’s “best talents” and true personality to himself and to Anwara.

A tamarind tree surrounded by open space in the countryside is an amazing sight for Hamid. Photo by Susana Tran,

A tamarind tree surrounded by open space in the countryside is an amazing sight for Hamid. Photo by Susana Tran.

The position of women as property in need of protection is highlighted in “The Caretaker’s Dilemma.”  Abdul Hamid, a seventy-year-old caretaker, has worked for an especially wealthy family for thirty-five years.  Married to a younger woman, he has three children, including two sons who have found good jobs in Dubai, thanks to the connections of his boss.  Now it is time to find a “suitable” husband for his daughter, and it is the prospective groom’s family which makes the final decisions, often influenced greatly by the size of the bride’s dowry.  In this case, the father of a potential groom, Helal Sobhan, has contacted Hamid to propose the wedding of his son to Hamid’s daughter.  Hamid has savings for the dowry but needs help from his boss, who is willing to donate his mother’s wedding jewelry, since he has no one else to give it to.  Hamid’s wife is less than happy with the choice of husband, whom they have never met, but she is also unsympathetic to her daughter’s reluctance about marriage, saying, “I got married.  My mother before me got married, and so will your own daughter someday.  Get up [off the floor].”  Hamid makes the long trip from Dhaka to the countryside to discuss the potential wedding with the groom’s father.  Sitting quietly under a tamarind tree and marveling at “so much uninterrupted land and sky,” the two men make final arrangements.  As the wedding draws near, Hamid and his family learn of dire consequences for all of them if the wedding proceeds.  He must act.

The Dhaka Club.

The Dhaka Club. Photo from their Facebook page.

“The Holdup,” a story of spousal abuse, focuses on a wealthy wife who will not leave her violent husband “so he [can] spend the night with his whore.”  After a particularly physical fight, during which one of their terrified children calls her aunt for help, the aunt and uncle come to the rescue, but the wife, whose marriage has made her part of the famously wealthy and influential Quereshi family, will not agree to leave.  Her husband has been having an affair with Pinky, a much older film actress, whom he met at the Dhaka Club, and he has been publicly indiscreet.  A shift of point of view shows Hassan, the husband, during an attempted robbery while he is in his car. Instinctively he attacks the two robbers, who are, in fact, children.  One escapes, the other is in his clutches, crying and wanting to go home.  The concluding scenes, involving Hassan, the boy, and the boy’s impoverished family, expand the reader’s understanding of Hassan – who he is and who he is not.  “The Forced Witness,” the final story of this remarkable collection, tells of a series of home robberies, some of them while the residents are at home, actions so bold that some even suspect their servants of taking the TVs and computers to sell.  When Noor Muhammad, a servant who is aware of the robbery next door, suddenly hears sounds in the house where he works, he gets up to investigate. The next thing he knows, he is on the floor, regaining consciousness from a serious head injury.  When the police arrive, they are suspicious and impatient, and add dramatically to the problems.

author photo nadeem zaman

Author Nadeem Zaman

Author Nadeem Zaman writes efficiently, realistically, and with a clear sense of direction and theme, relaying the inner thoughts and feelings of the servants at the same time that he also reveals the focus of the wealthy homeowners and their relationships with those who work for them.  Neither side is perfect, though the homeowners obviously have many more options than their servants.  The unifying theme throughout is the humanity of all of them, despite dramatic changes in all aspects of life in Bangladesh over the past twenty-five years.  Some characters willingly ignore the consequences of their actions, others cannot afford to take chances, and still others go out of their way to change lives for the better.  An insightful and unforgettable collection of “ordinary” but fascinating characters and their lives in Bangladesh.

Photos.  The Banani Graveyard appears on https://www.alamy.com/

A tamarind tree leaves Hamid marveling at the natural open spaces of the countryside when he is negotiating his daughter’s wedding.  Photo by Susana Tran.  https://www.shutterstock.com/

The Dhaka Club is where Hassan meets Pinky, an actress, and decides his marriage is a mistake.  This photo from their Facebook page:  https://www.facebook.com/dhakaclub/

The author’s photo is from his publisher, Unnamed Press:  http://www.unnamedpress.com/people/author/88

UP IN THE MAIN HOUSE
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Bangladesh, Book Club Suggestions, Short Stories, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Nadeem Zaman
Published by: Unnamed Press
Date Published: 11/05/2019
ISBN: 978-1944700980
Available in: Ebook Paperback

“Teacher, before we start we want to ask you a question….What does it mean to get into politics?  How old do you have to be?  Silence.  The teacher stares, startled.  Silence.  The teacher hesitates before answering.  Silence.  Fuenzalida dreams of him, of the silence that settled over the classroom, which she can hear as clearly as our voices.  Silence.  No one says a thing, not a seat creaks, not a sheet of paper rustles.  Boys and girls, says the math teacher, this is math class and you’re here to learn, not to talk nonsense.”—from a 7th grade classroom.

cover space invadersBridging the gap between a novel and a novella, Space Invaders by Nona Fernandez is, in fact, as short as a novella, but it feels more like a much larger novel in the grandeur of its themes, its well-developed controlling ideas, the world-changing historical events which give it drama, and the intense, literary style which brings it all to life and makes it work.  This powerful story takes place in Santiago de Chile during the time of Augusto Pinochet’s rise and military dictatorship, beginning in 1980 and extending to 1994 and later.  The eight school children who are the main characters here, are ten years old as the novel opens – five boys and three girls who are close friends.  Bright, curious, and observant, the children react to the very real conflicts around them, the military presence, and the sometimes bloody events which erupt and affect their lives as they grow up.  For them, the drama is part of their “ordinary” lives, not unlike the wild afternoons they spend shooting little green bullets at the “Space Invaders” they are trying to conquer in their favorite computer game.  It is the reader, of course, who recognizes through the changing points of view and the four-part division of the story line just how extraordinary these real events are.

Author Nona Fernandez

Author Nona Fernandez

Section I, which contains eight short mini-chapters, alternates stories about the characters as young school children, beginning in 1980, and contrasts them with the children’s recollections more than ten years later.  This allows the reader to see similar childhoods and events from various points of view from the outset of the story and observe the changes which time and events in Chile have wrought.  The first tiny episode introduces a young girl, Estrella Gonzalez, as she is brought into her classroom by her father, who is in uniform.  She kneels, respectfully, in front of the statue of the Virgen del Carmen and kisses her thumb. In the second episode, many years later, the group of seven other children who knew and liked this girl earlier, all share their memories of her, though each remembers her differently.  Even in later years, Estrella Gonzalez, the former  “new girl,” speaks to them individually in their dreams, and it soon becomes clear that Estrella actually left them many years ago and moved out of their lives but did not disappear.  Maldonado, Estrella’s best friend, remembers receiving a letter from Estrella, back in the old days, where Estrella talks about a work accident her father has had and the fact that she has lost her little brother Rodrigo, only a year younger, though his death remains a mystery. 

When Estrella appears at school, she kneels before La Virgen del Carmen and kisses her thumb.

When Estrella appears at school, she kneels before La Virgen del Carmen and kisses her thumb.

Episode V belongs to Riquelme, the only one of the children who ever goes to Estrella’s house, where they play Space Invaders for hours.  Riquelme does not know how Estrella’s brother died, but, while visiting, Estrella’s father takes off his left hand.  “It was a wooden hand, like the peg leg of a pirate.  There was a black leather glove on it.”  Estrella explains that her father lost his hand in heroic actions throwing a bomb out of the way of innocent people, and that he now collects additional prostheses in all possible materials to use when necessary.  Riquelme, and everyone else, is afraid of the night-mare-inducing “spare hands” that have become part of her father’s “collection,” and no other child ever visits the house again.  Another flashback in episode VII, features Zuniga who, each year is a “hero” in a pageant at school.  This time, a glitch leads to an ending in which he appears instead as a coward.  Estrella appears to him in a dream much later, to say that her brother drowned but no one knows how or why.  “I know I’m dreaming but her voice in my ear is as real as the feather weight of the sheets on my body.  It’s her,” Zuniga says.

Estrella's "Uncle Claudio" is recognizable to her friends because he drives a red Chevy Chevette.

Estrella’s “Uncle Claudio” is recognizable to her friends because he drives a red Chevy Chevette.

Dreams, memories, and imagination form our visions of the past here and become even more clearly defined as this story develops.   Time flips back and forth and around throughout the short sections, yet the narrative develops dramatically and quickly.  “Time isn’t straightforward,” the author says. “It mixes everything up…advances backward, retreats in reverse…”  In Section Two, 1982, “The Second Life,” the children are now in the seventh grade.  Two big national events have occurred: the former president, Eduardo Frei Montalva, who opposed Augusto Pinochet, “died of unexplained septic shock at a private clinic.”  Not long after, the head of the Chilean intelligence agency shoots a union leader five times, then slits his throat.  Without explanation, the story soon shifts to Maldonado who has received a letter from her best friend Estrella on an unstated date. Estrella is now in Germany, with  “Uncle Claudio” as a bodyguard.  Her father still has not recovered from his “accident,” and he has had more surgery.  In the next episode, from an even earlier time, some of Maldonado’s friends become involved in distributing flyers secretly in front of the school regarding a march against Pinochet.  They are seen, however, by Estrella Gonzalez’s bodyguard, “Uncle Claudio,” whom they recognize because he always drives a red Chevy Chevette.  Episode V in “The Second Life” indicates that two of the twelve-year-old friends have been suspended from school for becoming involved in politics.

This large monument has been erected to the three young Caro Degollados killed by national police.

This large monument was erected in 2006 in memory of the three young Caro Degollados killed by national police.

In the “Third Life” section, in 1985, two young men, described as “communist militants” barely in their twenties and not involved with the school group, are kidnapped, shot, and killed by national police.  A third young “militant” has also been discovered with his throat slit. Now “coffins and funerals and wreaths were suddenly everywhere and there was no escaping them because it had all become something like a bad dream.” Members of the school group, including Maldonado, attend the public funerals for these Caro Degollados.  Nine years later, in 1994, the officers who committed the crimes against these young communists are finally sentenced to life in prison.  The group members recognize two of them.  As author Nona Fernandez finishes this story in her clean, crisp prose, with her dreamy memories cropping up seemingly at random, she creates a dramatic, memorable, and important story of a time in Chile which she well remembers, as will the readers and lovers of literary fiction who discover this unusual book with its startling presentation.

chlean flag

Chilean flag

Photos.  The author’s photo appears in https://en.wikipedia.org

La Virgen del Carmen is honored by Estrella when she arrives at school on her first day.  https://www.magicalandes.com

Estrella’s “Uncle Claudio” is easily recognized by her friends for the red Chevy Chevette that he drives.  https://forums.vwvortex.com

Created in 2006, this monument honors the three young men, the Caro Degollados, killed by the national police.  The school friends attended their funeral.  http://www.serpajchile.cl

SPACE INVADERS
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Chile, Coming-of-age, Historical, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Nona Fernandez
Published by: Graywolf
Date Published: 11/05/2019
ISBN: 978-1644450079
Available in: Ebook Paperback

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