Sunday, August 29, 2021

An Island, by Karen Jennings


Holland House Books, 2019
179 pp


"... he would not leave; he would never leave. The land was his always." 

The first time I read about this book after its placement on this year's Booker Prize longlist, I knew I had to have it, and I absolutely knew within the first few pages of reading it that this was a book that I was going to love, given its subject matter.  The surprise was just how very much it crawled under my skin. 

It was the blurb that sold me on this book:  
"... A young refugee washes up unconscious on the beach of a small island inhabited by no one but Samuel, an old lighthouse keeper. Unsettled, Samuel is soon swept up in memories of his former life on the mainland: a life that saw his country suffer under colonisers, then fight for independence, only to fall under the rule of a cruel dictator; and he recalls his own part in its history..."

Samuel, in his seventies now,  had been used to discovering bodies washing up on the island over the over the last twenty-three years he's been living there; this  "young refugee" is the latest  in a series of thirty-two "nameless, unclaimed others."   At first, officials would come out to look for bodies, to "find all those who suffered under the Dictator"  so that now the nation could  "move forward," but as time went on and more bodies came to shore, officials brushed them off as possibly "another country's refugees," now unwanted.   Samuel was told to do what he wanted with them; it was not the government's problem.   This time around though, Samuel was surprised to find the man alive.  Planning to send him back on the supply boat coming the next day, Samuel takes the man into his cottage, feeding him and giving him warm clothing,  just waiting until "the island was his again."  However, even though they don't speak the same language,  the refugee panics at the sight of the supply boat before its arrival, and begs Samuel for help. Samuel recognizes something in that plea for help, and the other man is there, it seems, to stay.  His presence there rekindles bits of Samuel's memory of his pre-island days; memories that were "things best forgotten now approaching as steadily as waves approach the shore."  As more of his past is revealed, in the present he wavers between trust and paranoia toward the stranger, the latter growing steadily as he wonders about this man's true intentions.  

To say too much more about this novel would be criminal; I will only reveal that even though this story is less than two hundred pages long, there is much to unpack here, including the upheavals in ordinary people's lives as they suffer through political strife and struggle, and the emotional and physical tolls that remain as a result.  As the memories come back, so too does Samuel's awareness of the humiliation he'd suffered over the years, and he comes to the realization that this "land was his, always."  Soon  the presence of this outsider becomes untenable; this is Samuel's  home, and no one will take it from him. 

As bleak as this book is, as allegorical as it may be, it is a beautifully-written, insightful novel that begins rather quietly before readers are abruptly jolted back into the past, returned to the present, and jolted back again.   I'm wondering if these interruptions are meant to somehow mirror Samuel's mind, as it is certain interactions between him and the stranger which cause these memories to come to him, something as simple as the sight of a flower that the other man has made from odd bits laying around Samuel's cottage.  It can make for reading distraction,  but Samuel's past has a direct connection to what will eventually happen in his present.  I love the way the author set this all up, including the early foreshadowing  that sets the atmosphere, and then the slowly-building drama that results from Samuel's somewhat broken memories of the past.  And do pay attention to the red hen, although I won't say why.  There's so much more, of course, but this is truly a novel to be experienced.  

 Don't let the short length of  An Island  fool you -- it is a powerhouse of a novel that even now, several days after finishing it, is still haunting me.  

I am recommending it to everyone I know. 

Saturday, August 21, 2021

The Mermaid of Black Conch, by Monique Roffey


Peepal Tree Press, 2020
188 pp

(read earlier this month)

I loved this book, and thank goodness that Peepal Tree Press had the smarts to publish it.   In an interview with author Monique Roffey, she states that she finished writing this novel in 2017, but "the reality was that nobody wanted to buy it," and that she was "turned down by every big mainstream publisher."   Too bad for those big mainstream publishers -- in 2020 this book won the author the Costa Award, and I can only imagine the kicking of selves that went on among said mainstream publishers.  

The first time David Baptiste saw the mermaid was in 1976 while out fishing in the waters off Black Conch Island.  He dropped anchor, and after lighting his spliff began to sing to himself while strumming his guitar.  It was then that she made her appearance,
"A red-skinned woman, not black, not African. Not yellow, not a Chinee woman, or a woman with golden hair from Amsterdam. Not a blue woman, either, blue like a damn fish. Red. She was a red woman, like an Amerinidian. Or anyway, her top half was red. He had seen her shoulders, her head, her breasts, and her long black hair like ropes, all sea mossy and jook up with anemone and conch shell.  A merwoman."
From that moment, he "ached to see her again," and five days later she returned, attracted to his music. She came back now and then, listening to his songs; unfortunately, during the annual fishing competition held in Black Conch in late April, she got too close  to the Dauntless, a whaler on which two Americans, father and son, were fishing.  She was caught by their hook and while she put up a great fight, she lost; when they realized what they had caught, the Americans were determined to take her back to shore, as "she's worth millions."  The men on the boat from the island were stunned, "lost for words and for what to do" -- they had heard about mermen in their part of the ocean, but never a merwomen and at first, they realized that "this was wrong," as "she carried with her bad luck at best," but soon one of them also "began to see dollar signs."   She is reeled in, captured and taken back to the docks where she is hung up like a fish, but later David cut her down and took her to his house.  This is where the story actually begins,  as he tries to keep her not only alive but hidden away from prying eyes as an all-out search begins for the mermaid; it isn't long though until he realizes that she's begun the  transformation from mermaid to young woman. 

If you're rolling your eyebrows at this juncture, wait.  This isn't Splash or The Little Mermaid, but rather a powerful story of otherness, women and the assumptions men make about them as well as the destructive  power of envy, a love story and a quick run through the history of the Caribbean,  pre- and post-colonial.   The mermaid, Aycayia,  was much older than her newly-transformed self revealed -- she was once a woman of the Taino , who had lived on an island "shaped like a lizard," and had been there long before Europeans found their way to the islands and prior to the arrival of enslaved Africans. She had become a mermaid due to a curse put upon her by jealous women, who through the goddess Jagua, "seal up my sex inside a tail, Good joke to seal up that part of me men like."  Through Aycayia's narrative, which is interspersed throughout, she offers a look at pre-colonial history and indigenous myth and legend, while in the main story, the author examines slavery and its legacy in the descendants of the enslaved on Black Conch and in one woman, Arcadia Rain, who owns a large part of the island and can't quite escape her own family's history as slave owners.  Here though, Roffey differs in the usual telling, as Arcadia understands her position on the island and what it represents; she has, along with her young son, isolated herself in the old family home  "to keep away from this hatred. History. The great tragic past."  And there's much, much more.  

The Mermaid of Black Conch is an excellent novel, so beautifully told and so powerful, and I can't say I've ever read anything quite like it.  It is one of those books with the originality I crave in terms of story and writing, it has its own special vibrancy that brings both place and people to life, and there are so many layers embedded within this tale waiting to be uncovered that it never has time to be anything but captivating.  

Here's to Peepal Tree Press for taking a chance on this novel.  

I can't recommend this book highly enough.  

Monday, August 16, 2021

Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro


Knopf, 2021
303 pp

(read earlier)

Confession time: not too much into this novel I nearly put it down. I decided that if I still didn't like it after part two it would go into the donations box, so with that mindset I continued reading.  Good decision.  What started out feeling like a mix of children's story and YA novel definitely moved into a darker zone, leaving behind a number of unanswered yet intelligent questions worth pondering.   

Just briefly, since I don't want to give away any spoilers, Klara is a "top-range B2"  Artificial Friend (AF) who, as the novel begins, is on display in a store where people can purchase an AF as a companion, preventing their children/teens from becoming lonely  and  helping them with their school work.  There are newer models, the B3s, but according to the manager, Klara has "the most sophisticated understanding" of any of the other AFs in the store, "B3s not excepted."   As narrator of the events in Klara and the Sun, she has a somewhat limited view, but in affording her this role, Ishiguro allows the spotlight to shine more keenly on the human beings and the world around her, one which is obviously more technologically advanced than our present.   For one thing, something has occurred leaving many important and talented people to have lost their jobs (having been "substituted"); for another, parents who can afford to do so have had their children somehow genetically enhanced or "lifted" via a process known as AGE so that they have the best chances in life.   On the other hand, this world also seems familiar, with among other things,  clear-cut economic and social inequality, people on the margins, city spaces falling to ruin. Klara is chosen by Josie, a young girl who with her mother lives a relatively isolated life.  The only other human in the home is Melania the housekeeper, as Josie's parents no longer live together.  Josie's learning is done via tutors online via the "oblong" (think tablet) rather than school; social engagement with other kids occurs via periodic get togethers called "interaction meetings."   Josie has a friend nearby named Rick, who is clearly not in the same socioeconomic situation as Josie and her mother; he, unlike Josie, had not been lifted although he is definitely talented and worthy of any university.   The two are close and have plans to stay together; the problem is that as a non-lifted student, he has only a very small shot at entering any college that Josie might attend setting him apart and lessening his chances for a bright future.    Further complicating the situation, Josie is ill and if her now-deceased sister's case is any judge, there is a chance that Josie may not live to go to college at all.  As her condition worsens, often leaving her bedridden, Klara hits on a plan to help her, while her mother questions her choice in having had Josie lifted (although at times she seems to resent that guilt, only wanting security for her daughter), and has her own back-up plan just in case. 

Reader reviews are all over the map on this novel, with some people finding it "flat," others thinking that Ishiguro has basically rewritten his previous work, and others loving it.  While  I haven't gone into any detail here, in the last couple of chapters what happens seemed a bit too pat, too easy, and that made the read a bit on the frustrating side. Despite that, however, and getting past my initial reluctance, I found Klara and the Sun to be well done, although admittedly there were a number of spots that sort of bogged it down and made me impatient to move on.     If you're looking for hardcore sci-fi, this isn't the book although it does have its moments, especially in one particularly sinister and unexpected scene.  I left this novel feeling a bit unsettled, just thinking about what exactly might be in store for humankind in the future, precisely because the world inhabited by the characters in this novel doesn't feel too far off.  The dustjacket blurb says that the novel poses a "fundamental question: what does it mean to love?" but there is so much more that gets unpacked in this book.  Two particular issues came to mind almost immediately on finishing: what is it that makes us uniquely human and cannot be replicated in artifical intelligence, no matter how advanced the technology?  Is it ever going to be possible to fully replicate human beings?  There's more -- themes of faith, loneliness, isolation, grief; and of course the ethical dilemmas and social consequences of AI,   --  all put to the reader in the author's usual understated prose style.  It's a fine book -- perhaps not my favorite novel by this author, but still very much worth the time.