The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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My book of 2017 so far. A bold claim considering we’ve still got five months of the year to go. Still, I find it hard to think I’ll pick up a contemporary novel as moving, original, and powerful between now and Christmas. And if Obama agrees with me, I must be right.

The Underground Railroad is the story of Cora, born a slave on a Georgian cotton plantation, who follows in the footsteps of her runaway mother. Alongside her accomplice Cesar, she escapes and begins her journey towards freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Now, for those unfamiliar with US history I feel like I have to make the point that the Underground Railroad was a metaphorical route of safe houses and passage where slaves were smuggled out of the South. But in Whitehead’s book, it is an actual, powerful, gleaming, mechanical railroad.

I don’t usually buy into magic realism, but the slight unreality serves to bring home how alien and appalling the reality was. Cora travels through various states, seeing the different forms of oppression and how people adapt and survive. It is her personal journey, but it is also a collective journey, a shared American history that shouldn’t be forgotten.

It is powerfully emotional, without dipping into sentimental cliche. It is unflinching in turning its gaze to uncomfortable truths, but not gratuitous. This difficult balancing act means Cora and her story will stay with me long after her journey passes out of sight.

Read: On Barack Obama’s personal recommendation.

 

Ripper by Patricia Cornwell

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Jack the Ripper is excellent material for countless writers of both fact and fiction. A serial murderer of five down-and-out women, the Ripper menaced the gloomy streets of London, teasing the Police with hundreds of creepy letters before vanishing. A mix of seedy music hall glamour and gin-soaked slum squalor, all overlaid with a good dose of Victorian morality and ruffles.

This is Crime writer Patricia Cornwell’s thesis on the true identity of Jack the Ripper. Her theory is that acclaimed British artist Walter Sickert. It’s certainly plausible as Cornwell methodically lists up the reasons why; master of disguise, similar writing paper, symbolism in his art, geographical proximity and so on.

It’s really interesting as she recounts each case of murder- from her Kay Scarpetta novels, she certainly has an eye for forensics and crime scenes. The extensive research and contextual exploration of London at the time and Sickert himself are fascinating. It all tallies up rather satisfyingly.

Except for the fact there’s absolutely zero solid proof.

I don’t doubt that Cornwell truly believes the culprit was Sickert. You don’t spend two years and lots of time and money on something clearly unfounded (unless she got a huge book advance!) She’s vehement, branding those in disagreement ‘Sickert apologists’ which is a bit harsh considering there’s no conclusive evidence.

Still, I’m fine with considering the Ripper’s identity a mystery lost to time if only to fuel the imagination of countless more writers.

Read: If you like a good conspiracy theory.

 

What a Carve Up! By Jonathan Coe

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What a Carve Up! is like having a weird dream- spooky coincidences, off-kilter cinematic scenes, and an absolutely inability to determine the course of frantic action.

Novelist Micheal Owen has been hired by a mad aunt to write a biography is the despicable upper-class Winshaws. In the midst of the Thatcher years, each of the family members is up to their elbows in shady dealings across multiple spheres; there is the poisonous columnist, the arms dealer, the no-morals politician trying to sell off the NHS, and so on. As Owen digs deeper into their part, startling coincidences emerge.

It is inventive political and social satire, stuffed with cultural reference to show place and time. Partly told through letters, different charters, film scripts, diaries- whatever the medium, it’s very funny. Coe mercilessly captures ridiculousness of ludicrous social situations and pretentious characters, and send them up in style.

The disparate threads and styles have an overall effect of a crazy patchwork quilt or a magic eye picture. For some people, its complexity and layering comes together as a coherent, rollicking read but I’m left totally bamboozled by the ending. This is exactly why it reminds me of a dream; funny, nonsensical, and uncomfortably disorienting at the same time. I couldn’t even tell you if I enjoyed it or not!

Read: For a literary version of Spitting Image or Private Eye

An Absolute Scandal by Penny Vincenzi

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It’s 1988. Sloaney girls buy ludicrously expensive shoes on the Kings Road. Liquid lunches are de-rigeur. Merchant banks still exist. Money is everywhere. What a cool setting: the recent past is rarely written about. The novel’s time period spans some of my lifetime and yet it is as alien to me as corsets and telegrams.

This is a classic Penny Vincenzi beach read- lots of escapism through (someone else’s) family drama, extra-marital affairs and entangled acquaintances. What elevates it a little is this instalment put finance front and centre, whilst still being a page turner. Not especially sexy, you think? Hear me out.

Lloyds of London is one of the biggest insurance marketplaces globally. Investors or ‘names’ have unlimited liability, and therefore are personally responsible for underwriting losses. One by one, families crumble and fold as they face destitution.

There is old-school gentlemen Nigel, pretty young widowed Catherine, Flora the feisty grandmother, and charming banker Simon- all of them on the precipice of bankruptcy. Inevitable this takes its toll on those around them. Apparently money is the leading cause of stress in relationships, something Vincenzi shows to great effect.

I would say that ending is a too abrupt- I’d have enjoyed a courtroom finale. More conclusiveness would have made it a more satisfying chick-lit standalone. Still, there’s a bit more substance here than behind the shoulder-pads and blow-dry.

Read: For a glimpse into a more hedonistic time.

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

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Reading Hot Milk is like waking up dazed and dehydrated from a slightly-too long siesta. Disorientating and bewildering, it is dreamlike.

Rose and Sophia are a mother and daughter who have come to Spain, in search of a last-chance cure for Rose’s paralysis in her legs. Sophia is an anthropology graduate/barista, bowed and burdened through care of her mother. The novel explores the mother-daughter relationship and Sophia’s search for identity. It’s a modern myth, or even poetic anthropological study of desire, identity, and familial bonds.

Everything is imbued with enough heavy poetic symbolism to make your head whirl. It makes for beautiful, emotive and powerful reading. Sophia swims amongst and is stung by Medusas, as jellyfish are locally known. She frees a chained, barking dog. She flies to Athens to find her estranged Greek father.

Its dreamlike quality is a double edged sword- there is never the satisfaction of finality or conclusiveness. These swirling images are very abstract, reluctant to form a convincing narrative. Certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, but perhaps this is the way we’re meant to interpret Sophia’s search- unfinished, Sisyphean, fragmented.

Read: In the quiet of the midday sun with no distractions.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

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James Baldwin is better known for his essays, but this is no rational think-piece. This is love of the gut-wrenching-temporary-madness-inducing kind. Hailed as a queer fiction masterpiece, this is one of the most agonising break-ups I’ve ever witnessed, regardless of sexuality. It’s brilliant and tragic.

American abroad David hears that his former lover, handsome and charismatic Giovanni, is due to be executed. He reminisces on their meeting in a Parisian bar and subsequent brief love affair. They bully and bicker and flirt their way around decadent, squalid Paris with crackling intensity.

Told from David’s perspective, it’s also about being an outsider and the search for identity- be the it that of American or European, straight or gay, out or closeted. Some of this is quite literal at times, verging on cliche. I’m not entirely convinced by the Paris setting (seems pale and unreal outside the confines of the room) or peripheral characters either.

I don’t need to be though, because in this novel the only ones that matter are David and Giovanni. Baldwin’s gorgeous prose expresses all those relatable, nuanced, complex emotions in the life cycle of a love affair so accurately that I never once doubt in Giovanni and David. Even if they doubt themselves.

Read: To feel grateful when you regret a break-up and wonder what could have been.

Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham

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Of Human Bondage is sometimes described as a dark and erotic masterpiece, a young man’s coming-of-age through a tortured love affair. Which is entirely to mis-sell this Bildungsroman. Yes, protagonist Phillip does have an obsessive relationship with waitress Mildred. But prior to that he is orphaned, suffers from a club foot, moves to Germany to study and becomes an artist.

Philip is an exquisitely conceived character. Equal parts infuriating and sympathetic, he is confused and conflicted in his search for the meaning of life. You can clearly see the competing forces of Phillips irrational urges driving against his own interests.

There are a lot of philosophical musings, often in the form of friends who like to lecture on abstract art theory and the like. It’s also very long- it could have done with some editing down. And certainly not erotic, so don’t read this expecting a bodice ripper.

It is dark though. Mildred and Phillip’s relationship is messed up, entirely dysfunctional. She uses him for money as he seeks to possess her. Mildred has concurrent affairs, while Phillip stalks her through the streets of London. Mildred returns contrite but Philip won’t touch her. It is this interplay of light and dark, loving and loathing and all the other contradictions that make Phillip compelling and the novel a classic.

Read: As a caution to switching jobs or girlfriends to find meaning in your life.

 

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

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The Haunting of Hill House is the archetypal haunted house story. Way before we had 90s teenagers sprinting around spooky cabins, Dr Montague, Theodora, Luke and Eleanor decide to explore Hill House, the creepiest abode of them all.

As the group comes together to explore the mysteries of the house, we see the sequence of events through meek and mild Eleanor. Liberated from cares in the first time in her adult life, she has been invited to spend the summer because of her supposed sensitivity to psychic activity. The house takes a hold of Eleanor, with is gothic turrets and chilling past.

The writing is wonderfully uneasy, designed to unsettle: the descriptions of the house as confusing, off-kilter and uncanny, and the dialogue between the four characters which seems to be innocuous banter but with a weird, sinister tone.

This is a psychological thriller as much as a supernatural one- nothing too gory happens, there is no defined evil antagonist and yet it still manages to terrify. After all, it’s what you can’t see that’s scary.

Read: For a proper old-fashioned scary story.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

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#menaretrash is currently trending in South Africa so reading this book is a sad, sad reminder that the gender violence it depicts is certainly still present in society. The domestic abuse, attempted murder and institutional indifference are truly horrifying.

This seems pretty weighty for a celebrity biography- I didn’t expect a laser sharp commentary on race, class, and sexual politics. But then this celebrity is Trevor Noah so it is actually his day-job. Plus it’s pretty hilarious.

Not all comedians have such a rich seam of life experience either. Born a Crime details Noah’s unique life as a mixed-race child in Apartheid and Post-Apartheid South Africa. Not part of just one race or class, he navigates his way between private schools and Townships, educated multilingualism and a pirate CD business.

He’s outspoken, that’s for sure. I can’t really hold him to account though; as a comedian and provocateur, this is his story, and his mother’s. One of the loveliest things about this book is the deep and abiding love Trevor and his mother have for one another, under the most trying of circumstances.

Read: To find out more about that guy on The Daily Show and South Africa in general.

Nod by Adrian Barnes

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Insomnia is my biggest nightmare. I LOVE sleep- I’m one of those people who needs a full 8 hours and turns into a grinch if I don’t get it.

Therefore I was very scared of Nod. This is a world where a sleepless contagion has swept the world. No one can sleep at all except for a lucky few, mostly children. The first night it happens it’s a baffling coincidence. The second night, it’s a global panic. Technology shuts down, systems crumble and people start going bonkers over lack of sleep.

Except for our hero, writer Paul. Based in Vancouver, we see perfect his lovely Canadian life disintegrate as his girlfriend becomes more and more manic. Amongst all the crazy, a prophet arises. Paul’s friend gets hold of one of his manuscripts bearing a passing coincidence to their current predicament. ‘Nod’ is born- a new organised twisted religion, complete with sleepless zombie humans. Anarchy reigns and Tom and a stray ragamuffin child he picks up desperately fight for survival.

I lost the plot as it became more dystopian, incidentally as the writing gets more deep and symbolic. I suppose that’s actually what would happen in these circumstances; alternative belief systems would arise, violence and atavism come to the surface, and all the survivors fight it out in a random scramble. By the end I’m so disorientated that I’m not sure what happened so I’m not sure the deeper narrative stuff works for me.

Read: For tips on how to survive the apocalypse. Not when you have insomnia.