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A case of exploding mangoes

I only had one book on my bookcase that fitted my 2008 slot in A Century of Books and this was it; A Case of Exploding Mangoes which I must have had tbr for a while. I couldn’t remember picking it up – but as it is a bookcrossing book – I suppose it was at the Birmingham meet up one month. I either didn’t know or hadn’t remembered anything about it or why I had picked it up, and something about the title had made me think it was a light-hearted mystery. Well where I got that idea from I really don’t know! A Case of Exploding Mangoes is a dark satire that was shortlisted for The Guardian first book award and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

A re-imagining of the circumstances leading up to and surrounding the 1988 plane crash that killed Pakistan’s dictator General Zia ul-Haq, A Case of Exploding Mangoes is subversive and darkly comic. It is a rich, complex tale – incorporating historical facts with compelling, suspenseful fiction. It is a great mix – and the plot and storytelling are well balanced. Towards the end, the book gets harder to put down – always a sign of a really good read.

At the centre of the story is Ali Shigri, an air force officer, he leads the silent drill squad. His father was once one of General Zia’s colonels, who killed himself under rather suspicious circumstances. Ali is haunted by the image of his father hanging from the ceiling fan and is determined to discover who or what pushed him to such desperation, and thereafter avenge his death.

There have been numerous conspiracy theories about the plane crash that killed General Zia, and other officials. Mohammed Hanif has woven together real people and fictional characters to present a very credible (though chaotic) solution to the mystery. Ali Shigri is one of those fictional characters, and through him Hanif is wonderfully cynical about militarism, religious piety and the regime that Pakistan was living under. One of the things Zia insisted upon was the use of the word Allah, no other name was allowed.

“Two things that weren’t even on the agenda survived every upheaval that followed. General Akhtar remained a general until the time he died, and all God’s names were slowly deleted from the national memory as if a wind had swept the land and blown them away. Innocuous, intimate names: Persian Khuda which had always been handy for ghazal poets as it rhymed with most of the operative verbs; Rab, which poor people invoked in their hour of distress; Maula, which Sufis shouted in their hashish sessions. Allah had given Himself ninety-nine names. His people had improvised many more. But all these names slowly started to disappear: from official stationery, from Friday sermons, from newspaper editorials, from mothers’ prayers, from greeting cards, from official memos, from the lips of television quiz-show hosts, from children’s storybooks, from lovers’ songs, from court orders, from telephone operators’ greetings, from habeas corpus applications, from inter-school debating competitions, from road inauguration speeches, from memorial services, from cricket players’ curses; even from beggars’ begging pleas.”

Ali’s room mate at the barracks is Obaid (nicknamed Baby O) who splashes his eau de cologne about fairly liberally and recites Rilke. When Obaid suddenly disappears, Ali knows he will be questioned – at length. From the familiarity of the barracks Ali finds himself in the Mughal dungeons beneath the fort – with a mysterious neighbour who he talks to through the loose bricks in the adjoining wall.

General Zia consults the Quran every morning, so he knows just how to face the day. A religious zealot, who has introduced new religious laws, everyone around him joins him for the five daily prayers. Terrified of plots to kill him, Zia has refused to move to the Presidential mansion, and instead lives at the Army House, where he and the First Lady have separate rooms and barely seem to even like each other. General Akhtar is one of Zia’s most trusted officials, Brigadier TM; a former paratrooper major, rarely leaves his side. Hanif shines a light on the daily pettiness and stupidities of this regime along with the paranoias and cruelties of Zia’s dictatorship.

“The generals who had called Zia a mullah behind his back felt ashamed at having underestimated him: not only was he a mullah, he was a mullah whose understanding of religion didn’t go beyond parroting what he had heard from the next mullah. A mullah without a beard, a mullah in a four-star general’s uniform, a mullah with the instincts of a corrupt tax inspector.”

I really enjoyed this book, the mix of satire and cynicism with a well plotted compelling story, was just what I was in the mood for this last few days.

dear austen

“…I cannot feel what I long to feel: the contentment of you being within reach.”

In May 2002 a passenger train crashed into the station at Potter’s Bar in Hertfordshire. Seven people were killed, and many, many more injured. One of those killed was Austen Kark, the husband of novelist Nina Bawden. The couple; in their seventies, had been on their way to Cambridge for an eightieth birthday party. Having treated themselves to the small indulgence of a first-class ticket, the train left London at 12.45, they were surrounded by newspapers, smiling at one another across the carriage, as the train came off the tracks at Potter’s Bar, Nina never saw Austen again. They had been married for forty-eight years.

“…someone spoke to me from a great distance, the far end of a dark, hollow tunnel. You have been in a train crash. Austen is dead. It was a bad dream. I thought, wake up, you fool, that’ll stop it.”

Dear Austen is the letter Nina wrote to her beloved husband, telling him of everything that happened at the time of the crash – and later. She talks about her painful, long recovery, although she doesn’t dwell for long on her physical problems, one of those stalwart women who don’t feel it necessary to bore others with her stories of ill health. After leaving hospital though, she finds things are changed – a bit nervous in the house, her daughter moves in for a while, and later a Canadian lodger – Nina likes to hear the sounds of another person in the house.

Nina Bawden reflects on her life with Austen, their happy retirement in their apartment in Greece. More than anything she misses him, has so much she wants to tell him, expects him at any moment to walk into the room. She finds herself wondering what he would think about things that had happened in the world since he had died.

“Would you have been part of the of the enormous crowd that marched against the war in Iraq as our middle daughter and your granddaughters were? As I would have had my ankle allowed me to walk that sort of distance. What would you have said, what would you have done? Would you have walked with them?”

She talks to him particularly of the fight the families of the dead and injured had to get Railtrack to accept liability for the crash. She talks about the chilling attitude of the corporate machine, the company chairmen and executives – Snakeheads she calls them – who stand up so calmly and make statements that mean so little. (*disclaimer* I may, from now on adopt the term Snakeheads for all executive/corporate types).

As always with these kinds of disasters there were obvious errors, chances missed to avert the disaster to come. Families, going through the worst moments of their lives are left wondering who is to blame, made to feel guilty if the word compensation is even mentioned – and some told that because a loved one had been elderly and no longer contributing to the economy, their lose is worth less in purely monetary terms. It takes too long for Railtrack to accept liability, and Nina ends her letter in 2005, she couldn’t have known what would come next or how long the legalities would drag on. I found a Telegraph article which sets out the events chronologically, and the list ends in 2011 when Network Rail are fined £3 million. I find that time scale an act of cruelty.

Nina talks movingly of the other families, the people who were killed, and the families they left behind – who she gets to know through various meetings and memorials. There is the mother of the Ph.D. student who was killed, the widow left with four children the families of the Taiwanese girls whose ashes had been returned to their country in an unmarked box.

Nina Bawden reveals the shocking unaccountability of the large corporation. She writes in a deceptively simple style, but quite touchingly beautiful, and her meaning is always clear. She doesn’t descend to shrieking outrage – she is subtler than that – and this book is better and more poignant for it.

“It seems like a dream now, our life together. I try to remember specific occasions: meeting you on Hungerford Bridge in the early days when we were still married to other people, seeing you waving to me from a distance, then breaking into a run.”

Nina Bawden’s sadness is palpable, her sense of wrong done – not just to her, but to all the families is strong. But through it all we see a woman living with her grief.

toldbyanidiot

I have previously read two Rose Macaulay novels; The World my Wilderness and Crewe Train, firmly establishing Rose Macaulay as a writer I had to read more of. I spent a tiring, slow reading week with this book and it was wonderful company. Told by an Idiot is an earlier novel than either of those other two, and I think a rather more serious one. Rose Macaulay’s list of works on Wikipedia is considerable, though only a few are in print, so I have just purchased two more Macaulay novels from ebay. In this novel Macaulay charts the ever changing social, political and religious fortunes of England from the 1870s to the 1920s through the eyes of one family.

As the novel opens, Mama and Papa Garden live in their comfortable London home with their six children, the eldest Vicky is already twenty-three – the youngest Una a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl.

“One evening, shortly before Christmas, in the days when our forefathers, being young, possessed the earth, – in brief, in the year 1879, – Mrs Garden came briskly into the drawing-room from Mr Garden’s study and said in her crisp, even voice to her six children, “Well, my dears, I have to tell you something. Poor Papa has lost his faith again.””

Mr Garden changes religion like people of today change their mobile phones, from Anglicanism to Ethicism, to Catholicism to Christian Science – and everything in between. The family are well used to it – and his long suffering, ever supportive wife embraces whatever the latest thing is – no matter what her own private thoughts.

It is their children however who are at the centre of this novel, and in 1879 and the 1880s they are what is seen as the modern generation. Conventional Vicky’s younger sisters Stanley and Rome (here again Macaulay’s unusual androgynous names for women) and their brother Maurice at Cambridge are the epitome of late Victorian modernity. Stanley is passionate for a social cause, Rome is charming, urbane and cynical, she tries not to engage too fully with anything, taking life as it comes, and finding so much of life highly amusing.

“Life was to her at this time more than ever a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. She went on her way as usual, reading, seeing pictures, hearing music, meeting people, talking, smoking, bicycling, leading the life led by intelligent dilettanti in the small, cultivated nucleus of a great city.”

Maurice, with his first from Cambridge is an angry young man, who writes for a newspaper. Una grows up and marries a farmer, delighting too much in country life to do anything else, and Irving becomes a business man with some conscience and the ability to make money.

Vicky becomes a typical late Victorian matron, marries Charles, they argue a little from time to time, but Vicky loves him, and children inevitably arrive. Stanley marries and has children too, but her marriage is less successful, as is Maurice’s who marries a shallow, silly woman without really knowing her. Rome finds her one true love, though he is married to someone else.

Throughout the years, as various politicians come and go, as new technologies and new fads come along, and wars are fought, the older generation continue to be confounded and outraged by the younger generation. Though sometimes, the modern generation is even too outrageous for one another. Stanley’s husband is horrified and repulsed when she takes to wearing ‘bloomers’ to ride around London on a Bicycle.

“’It’s better to be elegant, dirty and dangerous than frumpish, clean and safe. That’s an epigram. The fact is women ought never to indulge in activities, either of the body or the mind; it’s not their rôle. They can’t do it gracefully.”

No wonder, perhaps that in middle age Stanley becomes a suffragist.

The third generation of Gardens grow up in a world where the Boer war is talked about by everyone – including children. Young Imogen is mortified when a child at school says her Uncle Maurice is pro Boer – and Imogen tries to explain that she isn’t pro -Boer herself but she can see their point. Imogen is a wonderful character, if Rome reflects one part of Macaulay’s own character, then her niece Imogen reflects the other part. Imogen; Vicky’s daughter, wants nothing more than to be a bright blue-eyed boy and join the navy. Her head is filled with stories in which she casts herself as Denis, a brown-skinned, blue-eyed young naval man. Imogen longs for adventure, to break away from the role cast for her by society. There is a wonderful scene where Imogen and her brother spend a Sunday morning riding around the underground for a penny. Those readers who love Imogen as much as I did will cheer for her as the novel draws to a conclusion.

Macaulay writes movingly about the realities of the First World War; those modern Victorians are in their sixties as the novel comes to an end – and England in some ways has changed and yet we see that in all the ways that matter people don’t change all that much. The older generation will always shake their heads at the younger generation, no matter what generation that is.

Tales from the tbr

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It’s been a while since I did one of these posts – but there are some books that have come into the house – so I thought I would share them with you.

I spent a lovely five days in the Isle of Wight towards the end of August, one day half way through my visit I spent a pleasant morning mooching around Ryde – tea was drunk before a quick look at a couple of charity shop bookshelves. I was drawn to a shelf of vintage hardbacks and walked away with these:

The Greater Darkness (1963) – David Rubin
Another Woman’s House (1947) – M. G Eberhart
The Flight of the Falcon (1965) – Daphne du Maurier

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I suppose I have taken a bit of a risk with those first two – as I know absolutely nothing about either the books or their authors, but they do look really good, and Daphne is always a safe bet. All three probably on the back burner until after A Century of Books is finished.

The week before I went back to work, I met up with a friend for a catch up – we met at Waterstone’s and so the inevitable happened. Two more I can’t read for ACOB and I really, really want to read them, I shall have to see if I can squeeze them in.

Warlight (2018) by Michael Ondaatje
The Librarian (2018) Salley Vickers

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My sister went to Astley Book Farm with a friend – and I gave her a short list of things to look for (short because I shouldn’t really be acquiring more books, should I?). She found Plagued by the Nightingale (1931) by Kay Boyle.

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On Saturday I met up with some friends from the Librarything Virago group when they visited Birmingham, and I was given a lovely green edition of Olivia (1949) by Olivia (aka Dorothy Strachey). I did have something else put aside for 1949 of ACOB which I still have to read – but perhaps I could read this instead – it’s much shorter than the other book.

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I received a publicity email from Handheld press the other day. They kindly sent me a pdf of Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner which they are bringing out at Hallowe’en. I won’t be reading the pdf just now I just don’t have the time (ACOB!) – and I have already read most of the stories in this collection when I read The Selected Stories of Sylvia Townsend Warner. If you are looking for something whimsical and a bit different this Hallowe’en – then you could do worse than invest in this little volume. Some of you probably already know Sylvia Townsend Warner is one of my favourite writers.

A Century of Books update: I have completed 72 – very nearly 73 – so 100 by the end of December is looking quite possible. What will be hard is sticking to the prescribed books and not veering away, I can’t stray too far off the path if I am going to do it.

loitering with intent

For those joining in with #ReadingMuriel2018 September and October is phase 5 – that is the novels of the 1980s and 90s.

Published at a time when Muriel Spark’s writing career was already well established, Loitering with Intent is a novel about writing. It is a wonderful novel, reminding me somehow of Momento Mori maybe as it’s packed with eccentric characters.

Fleur Talbot is our narrator, looking back on her early days as a writer from some later period. She returns us to September 1949, a gloomy time of continued rationing. Fleur is living in a London bedsit, it boasts a gas ring operated by putting pennies and shillings in the slot. Her landlord is trying to find ways of getting more money out of her, and she needs a job. She has a feckless boyfriend called Leslie – and Leslie has a wife Dottie – and Dottie is a sort of friend of Fleur’s, no one seems to find this strange.

“I don’t know why I thought of Dottie as my friend but I did. I believe she thought the same way about me although she really didn’t like me. In those days, among the people I mixed with, one had friends almost by predestination. There they were, like your winter coat and your meagre luggage. You didn’t think of discarding them just because you didn’t altogether like them.”

Fleur is also writing her first novel, called Warrender Chase which appears to be oddly foreshadowing events in the real world.

Fleur gets a job at the Autobiographical Association; founded by Sir Quentin Oliver. A group of eccentric individuals meet to write their autobiographies, and thereafter to bury them for seventy years – until such time that anyone named in them is dead. Fleur appointed to a secretarial position is employed to type these memoirs and look after the stationary cupboard. Sir Quentin’s clients she is told form a very special circle and her work is to be top secret. The place is Sir Quentin’s flat in Hallam Street, presided over by housekeeper Beryl Tims, and where Sir Quentin’s elderly mother Lady Edwina also resides, a woman given to sudden incontinence and strong opinions. The rest of the association is made up of a small group of peculiar aristocrats and an unfrocked priest. Fleur can’t help but introduce a little bit of fiction into the dull first chapter of Sir Eric Findlay’s autobiography – no one it seems has in fact written very much. One of the novel’s themes is the difference between fact and fiction – and how a writer writes them.

“While I recount what happened to me and what I did in 1949, it strikes me how much easier it is with characters in a novel than in real life. In a novel the author invents characters and arranges them in convenient order. Now that I come to write biographically I have to tell of whatever actually happened and whoever naturally turns up. The story of a life is a very informal party; there are no rules of precedence and hospitality, no invitations.”

Life and work at Hallam Street are rather outside of the ordinary. It isn’t long before Fleur starts to suspect that there is something a little shady about Sir Quentin. He is obviously wealthy – whereas the other members of his group are much more impoverished. Fleur thinks that perhaps Sir Oliver is blackmailing his clients, he has hinted after all that their memoirs contain all kinds of revelations. Despite Beryl’s insistence that Edwina is senile and past it – Fleur recognises that she is anything but, her mind razor sharp, Edwina and Fleur become unlikely friends.

It is Fleur’s own novel that fills her head – and after working all day at Sir Quentin’s flat she returns home to her bedsit to work on her novel Warrender Chase.

“My Warrender Chase, shoved quickly out of sight when my visitors arrived, or lest the daily woman should clean it up when I left home in the morning for my job, took up the sweetest part of my mind and the rarest part of my imagination; it was like being in love and better. All day long when I was busy with the affairs of the Autobiographical Association, I had my unfinished novel personified almost as a secret companion and accomplice following me like a shadow wherever I went, whatever I did. I took no notes except in my mind.”

loitering with intent2

We come to learn something of this novel – with its characters of Charlotte and Prudence who bare a passing resemblance to Mrs Tims and Lady Edwina. Fleur’s struggle to finish her novel and get it published is the story at the heart of this novel, one that includes the disappearance and reappearance of the manuscript. Fleur is surprised by how events in the real world keep showing up in her work. She is sure that this isn’t deliberate on her part – words and phrases from her book show up from time to time in her life.

Fleur is a fabulous narrator, engaging and funny – all of life’s absurdities seem to gather around her. She is perhaps one of my favourite Spark characters to date, and I wondered how much of Muriel Spark herself is in this portrait of a young writer and secretary.

It is the ending of this novel that I particularly love – without giving too much away – there is something completely joyful about it – and in that final line I felt it was Muriel speaking to us of her own life too.

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Well this book was a complete surprise, a gem of a book that I had had for quite a long time. I picked up Summer’s Day by Mary Bell after reading Love, Anger Madness needing a certain kind of book – something of a palate cleanser. Re-issued by Greyladies in 2008 Summer’s Day was first published in 1951 – set in a girls’ boarding school a few years after the Second World War. I think I must have picked this up second hand somewhere, and it has languished overlooked on my shelves ever since.

I underestimated this novel – and that it tuned out to be a much better novel than I had expected was a nice surprise.

There is a wonderful cast of characters, who are fully fleshed out, portrayed by Bell with warm affection and humour. Teachers, girls, their families, maids at the school and the gardener are all given compelling stories of their own. There are stories familiar to all of us who remember school days. Stories of unrequited love, seduction and loss in a novel with themes of love, loss and freedom. Mary Bell weaves these stories together to absolute perfection.

“The school. Empty and expectant, waited within sound of the sea. During term the sea could never be heard through its hygienically opened windows, nor when, as now, Alice opened one of them would the blown newspaper in the empty corridor sound loudly, or the water in the pipes of the heating arrangements pass with a cracking sound. The small echoes in the empty building seemed to Alice far more significant than the comfortable murmur with which it was filled all the term.”

As the novel opens, sixteen-year old Jasmine and Sophie are returning to school for the summer term. After that term, they will have just one year left – and then – freedom! Margery will be beginning at the other end of the school – moving from the junior house to the big school (though why she does this at the start of the summer term and not in September remained a mystery to me). Margery is leaving her father and her beloved Nannie at home – but she does manage to squeeze her teddy bear Augustus into her trunk against Nannie’s instructions. Jasmine, who longs so for freedom, is bright but quite lazy – she writes the essays and Sophie does the algebra. Jasmine has been brought up by her Aunt May. May Tern is married to a desperately dull clergyman – and she and Jasmine have a wonderful relationship – colluding against Uncle Arthur. May’s friend from school; Lady Berwick is Sophie’s mother, and it is at their house at half term Jasmine meets Sophie’s cousin Tom, off to Africa for a year, they agree to write.

Headmistress Miss Bishop – a former pupil of the school, has been forced to ask the retired classics mistress Miss Meadows to come back for a term or two. We see sixty-five-year-old Miss Meadows, leave her comfortable, quiet little cottage with its temperamental stove and willow pattern china, to return to the school she left ten years earlier.

“She had been faithful all her life to her first love but the service of the classics had been hard. It had not been remunerative either and the holidays she would like to have taken had remained for the most part in her dreams.”

Art master, Mr Walker, finds himself smitten from afar by Jasmine’s extraordinary beauty – though he is rather dismayed at what she produces in art class. Sophie’s love meanwhile is bestowed on Geoffrey, the gardener, Albert’s baby son. Sophie spends every moment she can at the cottage helping Mrs Munnings bathe him, Albert is completely nonplussed by Sophie’s adoration.

summer's day2

Albert is the local Adonis, having served his country during the war, when he married young – he now finds himself working at a girls school – stifled by marriage and fatherhood. Albert has a wandering eye, flirts regularly with the bar maid at his local pub, always on the look out for another conquest. As an appreciator of beauty, Mr Walker pays Albert to pose for a painting, the extra money getting spent in the pub. Mr Walker – a studio in the garden shed – lives with his mother – a nasty old woman, desperate to prevent her son from marrying.

Honor, an unhappy vicar’s daughter is assistant matron, a job she loathes. Matron hates her, and Honor feels that she is neither fish nor foul within the school community. Lonely and homesick she is easily seduced by Albert and made miserable thereafter.

I was fascinated by the way Albert and his wife are portrayed. We see Albert as a young, handsome man, selfish and carefree – his wife is always referred to as Mrs Munnings – we never know her first name. This makes her seem drab and matronly – the perfect contrast to Albert’s golden aura. Albert reflects on his time in Algiers, a time of exotic surroundings, when home seemed such a perfect place.

“The seeds of adventure which lay he supposed, in everyone, had been fostered for five years to a green growth and did not wither because he had come home. The easy routine, the soft spoken employer, the bells on Sunday, the tea in the kitchen, the wife to sew buttons, the pub from which one did not rush for fear of a sergeant major, the shops in which no one bargained – how sweet they had been in retrospect, how dull when he had settled down! A girls’ school! he thought, turning his back upon it, and spat over the fence.”

Mrs Prior runs the kitchens – she tells tales and displays the postcards from her son Jim, who is with the services, due home on leave soon to much excitement. Jim is a real hero, and everyone can’t wait to meet him. Shirley; second housemaid, misses dearly her large, warm family, and wants nothing more than a little family of her own. Poor Shirley is destined for some sadness, poignantly and touchingly told by Bell – she’s a wonderful character – and Miss Meadows who so kindly tries to help is adorable.

There is a lot more I could probably say about this lovely novel, suffice to say it was a complete joy.

love anger madness

Translated from French by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokur

My final read for August’s Women in Translation month was a book of three novellas, Love, Anger, Madness: a Haitian triptych. Knowing nothing about Haiti – expect that voodoo comes from there, I was fascinated to learn more. I didn’t know what to expect from it really – and had never heard of the author at all.

“Fear is a vice that takes root once it is cultivated. It takes time to recover from it.”

Marie Vieux-Chauvet was born in 1916 in the Haitian capital, part of what was called the ‘occupation generation’ – it was the year after the US invaded Haiti. She grew up in a tumultuous period in Haiti history, and this is very much reflected in these three novellas. In 1968 following the publication of this novel and the resulting furore Marie Vieux-Chauvet was exiled to the United States.

These stories depict families and artists struggling to survive, find love and safety in Haiti while living under some of the most terrifying and hostile conditions.

The first novella, Love is told in the form of a journal, by Claire, the eldest of three sisters, who has never married. Her younger two sisters, and her brother-in-law share the old family home with Claire – but there is jealousy and resentment at the heart of this family. As the novel opens, Félicia; the middle sister married to Jean Luze is in the early stages of pregnancy. The youngest sister Annette only twenty-two, is openly conducting an affair with her handsome brother-in-law. Claire is driven to distraction, not at the betrayal of her other sister, but because she too has developed a passion for Jean Luze. In time, Claire becomes devoted to her little nephew when he comes along, and as Félicia becomes more and more fragile and less present in the house, Claire begins to feel as if he is almost her own. With Jean Luze soon tired of Annette, this youngest sister, vain and self-serving, leaves, marrying someone else – and Claire’s fantasies about her brother-in-law increase.

“Jean Luze plays a record in the living room. The notes penetrate me as he listens to them. My senses begin to vibrate so much that I rush to lock myself in my room. The sound explodes like a scream and then lingers in a caress. The entire house is suffused with it. What a hymn to life, this work born of suffering.”

This story of domestic disharmony takes place within a small, frightened community. The commandant, whose jail is across the street from Claire’s house, holds the community in thrall. We are witness to cruelty, fear and tales of sexual violence metered out to neighbours. Claire can hear the screams from her room.

In Anger, we meet the Normil family – with the story is told from multiple perspectives. One morning this large middle-class family wake to find militia men in black uniforms driving stakes into the ground around their home. This act of land seizure terrifies and intimidates the family, who have been proud landowners for many years. Rose, the pretty twenty-year old daughter becomes central to the crimes committed against this family and focus of much of the anger. For a month Rose must submit to the attentions of one of the militia leaders. Rose seeing herself as a martyr, goes to her fate in scenes which make for very uncomfortable reading. Meanwhile her mother, father, brothers and grandfather each deal differently with the unfolding situation. Their anger manifesting in various, destructive ways.

“Louis Normil felt his father’s anger rising in him. The shock was what saved him. He instinctively tilted his head to take his leave of the lawyer and made for the exit. He thought he caught a glint of mockery in the guard’s eyes, but he paid him no mind and went to work.”

The third novella Madness is harder to talk about without completely ruining it. It is that shortest of the three novellas, and the one I liked the least. The story is narrated by a young poet; Rene. Trapped for days inside his house, he watches ‘the devils’ as he calls them through the shutters of the windows, as they rampage their way around the town. There is a body in the street outside and flies have started to gather on it. Opening the door to two friends, brothers and fellow poets Rene encourages them inside to hide from ‘the devils’ who are invading their town. Isolated and terrified – Rene is suffering from a lack of food and water, stealing himself for a last stand against authority.

Despite the fact not all of Vieux-Chauvet’s characters are likeable this triptych remains sympathetic. It is however, also brutal and uncompromising in its depiction of Haitian society, and the reality of a country in turmoil. It is brave and terrifyingly honest.

It really was no wonder that I needed a palate cleanser after this book – which runs to almost 400 pages – and began reading something entirely different a couple of hours after finishing it.