Sunday, February 18, 2018

United Kingdom: Elmet, by Fiona Mozley

The United Kingdom is a tricky one (in fact, I've considered splitting it up and reading a book each for England, Scotland and Wales). It's not, of course, that there is a lack of choice but that there is too much choice. I wanted something that could only come from the UK - not a generic "modern big city" sort of book. The Booker Prize long-listed Elmet seemed to fit the bill.

It is set in rural Yorkshire, in the vale of Elmet, the site of the last independent Celtic kingdom in England. Here Daniel and his sister Cathy live with their father apart from modern life, in a house that Daniel's father has built by hand. They live by hunting and fishing. But even though they wish it, they cannot keep themselves apart from the outside world. Though Daniel's father is tender with his children, violence lurks inside him. And men in the outside world are threatened by their presence, and want to control their lives. A terrible denouement is coming.

It's a powerful and unsettling book but also very lyrical. Cathy takes after their father and prefers the outdoors. Daniel likes the indoors and their idiosyncratic schooling with Vivien, a neighbour. He is watchful and observant. Even so, I found him puzzling as a narrator, and couldn't quite decide if the "voice" of the book, with its impressive and precise vocabulary, was true to what he might have learnt in his year or so of being schooled this way. The other thing that I found a little unrealistic was that everyone wanted to solve their issues without the intervention of the police. But some of the events that took place would surely attract very prompt police intervention in the modern world, and this didn't happen. Or perhaps it did, just not within the time frame of the story. At any rate, as the story unfolded, I was totally gripped by the narrative, and by the beauty of the language and description.

Fiona Mozley grew up in York and is studying for a degree in medieval history. Elmet is her debut novel and is published by John Murray (Hachette UK), 2017.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Bahrain: Yummah, by Sarah A Al Shafei

I'm slowing down on the world reading because I have a lot of other books on my "to be read" list that don't fit this project. However, I thought I should try and fill in some of the gaps among the B's and C's - Bahrain being first on the list.

It came down to a choice of two books, after I searched extensively and couldn't find any others. Either QixotiQ, by Ali Al Saeed, or Yummah. And after reading Ann Morgan's review of QixotiQ, I thought Yummah would be the better bet.

Mind you, it is not without flaws. The story tells of the life of Khadeeja, a Bahraini woman growing up in a traditional society, raising her children and becoming the matriarch of a large family of grandchildren and greatgrandchildren as times change and modern influences affect their lives. "Yummah" it appears is an Arabic term for "grandmother". It's the sort of story that you might write for your family to tell of your family history. As a description of Bahraini life it was interesting enough, but there was not a lot of drama in the way events unfolded. And I found Khadeeja to be an infuriatingly perfect woman - patient and forgiving. When her husband, going through financial difficulties, leaves her to travel to Dubai where he remarries a rich woman, she never stops loving him. And when he is old and ill, she takes him back and nurses him. There were flaws too, in the maths. In places, time intervals between children are clearly stated - two years after her first daughter, she is pregnant again. She has a third daughter, and then a son, and a couple more after that - she is nursing a baby when her five year old son is bitten by a scorpion and dies. So her eldest must now be about ten years old at least - but several more children follow, and her eldest is still around eleven or twelve years old and approaching marriageable age.

The author studied in Boston and Miami and received a BA there. I presume that the book has not been translated, but written in English. It would have benefitted from editing but mostly the mistakes do not get too much in the way of the reader. I often noticed a lack of punctuation so that where I would have expected a full stop between sentences, there was none, and the two sentences were written as one. In spoken English, this would have been less obvious. The most charming quirk that I noticed on several occasions was the use of the phrase "to go behind" which floored me briefly, until I realised the author meant "to go after" eg someone "went behind" money instead of "going after" money.

But the lack of editing is an inevitable consequence of the fact that many of the books I am reading for this project are produced on low budgets, in a world where the big publishers concentrate on a few titles likely to achieve mass market success. My copy, which I had to pursue rather diligently in various corners of the internet, was I think a "print on demand" title (it does seem to be available on Amazon, but I don't purchase from there as the shipping rates to New Zealand make their prices ridiculously expensive).

At any rate, despite its flaws, I found the book an enjoyable enough read. And as the author is apparently only twenty four years old, or was at the time of its publication, perhaps there will be more to come from her, and she will improve as she goes on.