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cof

The eighties are turning out to be a favourite period in Muriel Spark’s writing for me. A Far Cry from Kensington (1988) that I read last year was one of my books of the year, and Loitering with Intent (1981) that I read last month was fabulously entertaining. My second read for phase 5 of #readingMuriel2018 was The Only Problem, it’s so brilliantly quirky that it could easily become one of my favourites overall.

An academic writing a book on the Book of Job while his estranged wife runs around with French terrorists and a policewoman masquerades as a housekeeper – could any of this come from anyone other than Muriel Spark?

“Harvey was a rich man; he was in his mid-thirties. He had started writing a monograph about the Book of Job and the problem it deals with. For he could not face that a benevolent Creator, one whose charming and delicious light descended and spread over the world, and being powerful everywhere, could condone the unspeakable sufferings of the world; that God did permit all suffering and was therefore, by logic of his omnipotence the actual author of it, he was at a loss how to square with the existence of God, given the premise that God is good.”

 

This religious theme is certainly a familiar one for Muriel Spark, but don’t worry you don’t need to be religious or have a theology degree to get on board with this one.

Canadian scholar Harvey Gotham is living in a small remote cottage in France, in the grounds of an empty château. He spends most of his time thinking, writing and talking about the Book of Job. Harvey is obsessed with the question of suffering, and why God would allow it. Two years earlier, Harvey had separated from his wife Effie when they had been travelling with friends in Italy and Effie stole some chocolate as a protest against capitalism. Harvey walked away from the car that day in disgust and hasn’t seen Effie since.

Now, Harvey’s friend and brother-in-law Edward arrives at Harvey’s cottage – at the request of his wife; Ruth – Effie’s sister – to talk to Harvey about Effie and to persuade him to give her a divorce. Edward is puzzled at the sight of baby clothes hanging on the washing line outside the cottage, and Harvey explains he uses them to deter the local women from calling on him with offers of help, which they will if they know he is a man alone. Little does Harvey know what trouble this habit with the washing line will bring him. Things in Effie’s life have certainly moved on, she has a new man in her life and is expecting his baby.

Months later and Ruth has moved in with Harvey bringing Effie’s baby with her. She seems she has left Edward and Effie is not all that interested in the baby Clara. I found this interesting considering Spark’s difficult relationship with her son, though perhaps I was reading too much into it. Harvey doesn’t get much say in any of this, and he has bought the Château at Ruth’s suggestion, although he sometimes still works in the cottage. Harvey is more concerned with Job than his own domestic arrangements.

“It is the only problem. The problem of suffering is the only problem. It all boils down to that.”

So, Harvey is more than a little surprised, to see a photo-fit of a woman looking remarkably like Effie in a French newspaper report about a terrorist group. The FLE have been carrying out armed robbery and planting bombs in supermarkets. Effie is said to be associated with them, and she has previously been arrested for shoplifting in Trieste. Unable to lay their hands on Effie herself, the French police turn their attentions to her estranged husband. Part of Harvey really still loves Effie – and he refuses to believe that she is the woman in the paper.

The Only Problem is a wonderfully thought provoking, entertaining novel I found it compulsively readable, darkly humorous and surprising. Really excellent stuff.

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cof

Having so very much enjoyed Crewe Train and Told by an Idiot by Rose Macaulay this year, both great choices for my A Century of Books, I couldn’t help but acquire a couple more. Staying with Relations is one I hadn’t heard of, and with me not having yet done 1930 I decided to read it straight away. It isn’t quite up to the standard of Told by an Idiot, or The World my Wilderness which I read last year, but it is still an enjoyable read.

This is one of the Rose Macaulay novels that is not currently in print, and my edition, bought quite cheaply from ebay, is an American paperback from the 1980s, carrying a quote from Elizabeth Hardwick on the back.

“It is a pleasure to have Staying with Relations back in print. It reminds us once more of the fitness of Rose Macaulay’s talent, her astuteness about characters and her gift for displaying, just right, the dramatic elements of the story.”
(Elizabeth Hardwick)

English novelist Catherine Grey has been spending some time in America, when she receives an invitation from her Aunt Belle to come and stay with her and her family. Catherine is interested in character, and character types – she tries to categorise everyone she meets. A visit to her relations should prove entertaining.

“How did the human eye so arrange for itself the lines and colours of the human creature (surely a comparatively ugly animal?) that they wavered and re-formed into this shape we have conceived to be beauty? Strange illusion!”

Aunt Belle is living on an old Spanish plantation in the rain forest of Guatemala. Now married to her second husband an English judge, Sir Richmond (known as Dickie), Belle has a houseful staying already and she thinks Catherine will enjoy the company that she will meet in Guatemala. Catherine has a long, exhausting journey to reach her aunt’s eccentric old home which she finds is an odd mixture of architectural styles. Here, staying with Catherine’s aunt and step uncle are her aunt’s four step-children; Claudia, Benet and Julia all fairly grown up and Meg – the child, and Belle’s own daughter Isie Rickaby and her husband Adrian who has been designing the recent additions made to the house. Isie is spoilt, very beautiful – and she knows it – rather silly and given to stomping off. The final member of the household is taciturn Devonshire man Mr Piper – some kind of estate manager.

The old Spanish house, the Hacienda del Capitan, or the Craddock house as it is variously called, is surrounded by dense jungle, beautifully described by Macaulay. Their nearest neighbours are Mr Phipps who has made his money from straw hats, and a Spanish clergyman with three wives. Catherine settles comfortably in to her pink and silver room – unaware of the drama she is about to be swept up in.

Following a row with Adrian, Isie stalks off into the jungle in a mood – and after paying a visit to Mr Phipps first, is apparently abducted by Lacandon men and taken deep into the Guatemalan jungle. The family are frantic and begin talking about ransoms, Belle recklessly promising the men can have everything they want – much to her husband’s alarm. Meanwhile, Isie actually escaped her captors quite quickly, but is now horribly lost and terrified in the dense jungle. Back at the ranch – with no one knowing where Isie is, there is a lot of fuss. Meg is sent to bed as she has been ill, and Belle doesn’t want her upset when she hears about Isie. Meg demands she be allowed her baby armadillo to sleep with.

“‘Darling, I don’t think one has armadillos in bed. They’d be so uncomfortable.’
‘Tray’s not uncomfortable in my bed. He likes it.’
‘Uncomfortable for you, I mean,’
‘Oh, no. He’s not. He’s a very cuddly armadillo. Please may I have Tray?’”

Questions about who exactly Mr Phipps is, are soon raised, with the funny little man beginning to look decidedly dodgy. Whispers abound of a hidden treasure somewhere around the house – and while everyone tells everyone else that had it ever existed it must surely have been found long ago, they all set about looking for it. Poor Isie must be rescued, and if her captors want treasure it must be found. Catherine wonders what it was that had Isie running off like that – and asks Julia. She discovers that all is not quite as it should be in the Rickaby marriage – and Claudia could well be the reason. Catherine is starting to get to know this peculiar family, their character types, and bit by bit the scales fall from her eyes.

“They were set on their prey. They had mean, small, hard minds, thought Catherine; obstinate, selfish, materialistic and vengeful. She did not know why she had found them charming. They were even stupid, to be so oblivious of the amenities of travel, so set on their small private ends; so fatuously unaware, too…”

Staying with Relations is entertaining and readable, there are many beautifully written descriptive passages and some good characterisation, however it is a weaker novel than the three Macaulay novels I have previously read. It is a bit baggy – a little formless, I liked it – but wondered where it was going really. Overall, worth reading for Macaulay fans, but just not her best.

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mde

Translated by Tina Nunnally

I have to admit to not having heard of Tove Ditlevsen until this book came into my life, which happened quite by chance. I was putting together a prize for the bookcrossing event I have just attended. It was a prize of translated works, and a friend passed on a copy of this book which had already been registered on bookcrossing. I decided I wanted to read it myself, and as I wasn’t sure I would finish it in time, I went in search of another copy. I was fortunate to find one, so my original edition went into the prize bundle as intended.

“In the morning there was hope. It sat like a fleeting gleam of light in my mother’s smooth black hair that I never dared touch; it lay on my tongue with the sugar and the lukewarm oatmeal I was slowly eating while I looked at my mother’s slender, folded hands that lay motionless on the newspaper, on top of the reports of Spanish flu and the Treaty of Versailles.”

Tove Ditlevsen was a prolific Danish poet and author, writing poetry, novels, short stories and works of memoir. Born in 1917, she grew up in a working-class neighbourhood of Copenhagen and her childhood became very important throughout her work. Early Spring is a memoir of her childhood, and in it we can see the touch of a poet. This volume contains the first two of Tove Ditlevsen’s memoirs, Childhood and Youth, both published in 1967, the third volume Gift (not included here) came out in 1971.

“Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own. It’s there all the time and everyone can see it just as clearly as you can see Pretty Ludvig’s harelip.”

Written in a straight forward, no nonsense style, shot through with beautiful descriptive passages and humour – Early Spring faithfully recreates the sights and sounds of Tove Ditlevsen’s 1930s childhood environment. Her community is a tough, conventional working class one where childhood ends with the confirmation ceremony. After which the adult world beckons, with many girls engaged or married in their late teens. The subject of childhood is a recurring one, Tove thinks about that thing that is her childhood constantly, speaking as if she were still in the midst of those turbulent years – it is easy to forget that she was writing from a distance of some years. Young Tove is confounded by her childhood years but she also treasures her childhood, knowing it to be a privilege and fearing the end of it, and the world which may lay beyond. Tove makes friends with the girl from downstairs, two years younger and with a nicer family, she is a little bit of relief in Tove’s loneliness. Life and death surround her – she witnesses the death of her aunt, begins to see the differences between her family and those of the other children at school. As we all do, Tove begins to understand the world around her.

“I always think that when I’m grown up my mother will finally like me the way she likes Edvin now. Because my childhood irritates her just as much as it irritates me, and we are only happy together whenever she suddenly forgets about its existence.”

Tove grew up in a home where she was a lonely, clumsy child. She had an elder brother – who was the more favoured of the two siblings. The family were poor, and there was little in the way of joy or excitement in Tove’s life. Yet, she had the soul of a poet, a rich imagination, and an unflagging determination to be who she knew she could be and achieve the things she wanted to. In the privacy of her room, young Tove began to write her poetry, scribbling them down in her private poetry album and hiding it away. For Tove, the idea of writing was her one chance to escape the narrow confines of her family and community.

Few of the people in Tove’s life appreciate or understand what she is trying to do, they dismiss or ridicule her poetry writing, but Tove is never swayed. In time, boyfriends begin to rear their heads, and Tove must face the traditional end of childhood. Her mother arranges for her to start work as a mother’s help straight away – but she only lasts a day. All the time she writes, showing her poems to just a trusted few, and hanging on to every word of their praise – clinging to each last bit of hope of future publication.

We watch Tove grow and develop into a young woman who never loses the hope that has slowly built up in her over her first eighteen years of life.

“Istedgade is my childhood street – it’s rhythm will always pound in my blood and its voice will always reach me and be the same as in those distant times when we swore to be true to each other. It’s always warm and light, festive and exciting, and it envelops me completely, as if it were created to satisfy my personal need for self-expression.”

Early Spring is a delightful little memoir full of hope and courage it is poignant and compelling at the same time. We know of course, that Tove Ditlevsen survived the poverty and isolation of her childhood and became the writer she dreamed of. To see where and how it began is quite lovely.

 

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dav

I had to take a short break from A Century of Books to read this, just what I needed – as ever I reach for vintage mysteries when I am over tired. These British Library Crime Classics always tick the box. John Bude is a familiar name to readers of British Library Crime Classics, they have published (I think I am right in saying) six of his mysteries, though I had only read two prior to this one. John Bude was the pseudonym for theatre producer and director Ernest Elmore and he was a very prolific writer.

The Cheltenham Square Murder comes with one of those handy little street plans so beloved of mystery writers from the Golden Age. How necessary this simple little drawing is I’m wasn’t sure – but I admit I did find myself referring to it to several times.

cofThe novel opens in a small, tranquil regency square in Cheltenham Spa, ten houses in a u shape around a communal grassy area of shrubs and trees. The inhabitants are generally middle aged – and quiet living. It is certainly not the kind of place, one would expect to encounter sudden and violent death.

However, all is not quite as it seems. Several residents have been locked in a dispute over the fate of an old elm tree, and bank manager Mr Fitzgerald appears to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. Captain Cotton has been seen often in the company of Mr West’s wife, and set tongues wagging. Meanwhile the Misses Watt, are concerned with a secret they accidentally happened upon, while they nursed their neighbour Edward Buller in his delirium.

“There had come to his ears a strange, insidious sound – a faint zip, a long click, and a long drawn out sigh from Cotton. He swung round, puzzled, opened his mouth to speak and swayed there with his lips held slackly apart, staring. The glass dropped from his hand and was shattered on the parquet. He put down the decanter, shakily, took a couple of steps forward and again stopped dead.”

The square’s fraught rivalries are disrupted by the sudden, shocking death of one resident, shot in the head with an arrow through an open window. One of the other resident’s is a doctor and he is soon on the scene, but it appears that death was instantaneous. Suspects there are a plenty, especially as six of the square’s residents are members of the nearby Wellington Archery Club.

Fortunately for perhaps everyone but the murderer, celebrated crime writer Aldous Barnet has been staying with his sister at number 8, and Mr Barnet has invited his old friend Superintendent Meredith to stay while his sister is away. Meredith soon finds himself embroiled in the investigation alongside local policeman Inspector Long (whose ‘working class’ accent is just a bit overdone). They focus their attentions on the recently vacated house on the square – the skylights and a small landing window in a neighbouring house. The residents of the square are questioned thoroughly, with poor Inspector Long living in dread of his conversations with Miss Boon, a rather strident woman with a house full of dogs.

Secrets are there to be unearthed – and even a spot of blackmail to be revealed. Meredith and Long have their work cut out trying to figure out who did what and why. Just as they are starting to cast their collective suspicious eye on one particular person, there is another equally gruesome death on the square.

“One hand gripped the lapel of his velvet smoking-jacket. The other was closed over an unlighted cigar. His mouth was slightly agape. In three strides Meredith was across the room with the doctor close at his heels. Simultaneously their eyes met.”

Then Meredith hears about a bizarre incident on a farm, when a labourer found a ewe with an arrow buried in its head. Meredith can’t help but think that this must have something to do with his case.

No spoilers – I’m keeping this short. The Cheltenham Square Murder is an entertaining mystery with just enough twists and turns to keep the reader guessing. I eventually happen upon the culprit – but not very early on and only after changing my mind a couple of times.

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pirates at play

I think I must have had this book tbr for quite a while – and I couldn’t remember where I got it until I saw that it had been registered on bookcrossing (not by me) – so that’s where I got it. Violet Trefusis is a name often coupled with that of Vita Sackville West, because of the relationship they had in the years following the end of the First World War. In her introduction to this edition Lisa St Aubin says that Pirates at Play is an apt name for a novel by someone who herself was a social pirate.

“When she writes about falling in love, about flirting, about manipulating the world around her, she is writing about what she knows.”
(Lisa St Aubin – introduction)

I have of course read several Vita Sackville West novels, and for the most part enjoyed them immensely. Her novel Challenge was the exception – and I read somewhere that Violet Trefusis had something of a hand in it. However, I couldn’t remember at first whether I had read Violet Trefusis herself before. A delve into my own archives reveals I read the letters Violet to Vita edited Mitchell A Leaska, in 2010 and it seems Violet got on my nerves a bit. That’s interesting, and maybe revealing as I vaguely remember starting another Violet Trefusis novel (no idea which one) some years ago and giving up on it.

At this point I should say that I did really enjoy Pirates at Play – though something stopped me from really loving it – and I felt I should have done really, it is well written and witty, and Trefusis’ characters are wonderfully vivid. Her descriptions of Italy and the English country estate of the aristocratic Caracole family are also stunning, creating an evocative sense of place. Violet Trefusis was a gifted writer, of that I am in no doubt.

“The ferocious day, striped white and black, like a zebra, was declining at length, as though loath to let go. A nimbus of dust hung over the bridges, never free of the shuffle of feet. At the angle of the Ponte Vecchio, Beppino, the blind guitarist, scratched at his instrument with the frenzy of one affected with erysipelas, raising his moonstone eyes to the Heavens, whenever he heard a foreign language spoken.”

Trefusis is sharply observant about the society she knew so well, in some ways she is poking gentle fun at it. It is a novel about love in many forms, wish fulfilment and society. Trefusis’ female characters are by far the strongest, beautifully well drawn, they sparkle off the page, however, some of her male characters are rather two dimensional.

The pirates of the title are two very different families, one English, one Italian. Elizabeth Caracole (pronounced Crackle) is the daughter of an old aristocratic family, living on a grand and beautiful estate. Her parents decide to send her to be finished in Florence. Golden haired Elizabeth is to live in the home of a Papal Count (the pope’s dentist). The Papagalli family boast one extraordinarily beautiful daughter; Vica and five sons. Florence is a marvellous setting for this romantic comedy, set during the frantic, roaring twenties.

“Do you think that love has to be requited to be genuine? On the contrary, it thrives on indifference.”

Elizabeth is known to turn male heads herself – and here she is entering into a house full of men! Vica is ambitious and has her own plans, which are set to be thwarted by the very formidable old Principessa Arrivamale. For Elizabeth, Florence is a whirlwind of new experiences, and five brothers to get to know. A grand ball is held with half of Europe it seems to attend. As soon as the old princess sets eyes on Elizabeth, she decides she wants the beautiful English aristocrat as a wife for her nephew Gian Galeazzo – little knowing that Vica also has her sights set on him herself (the princess insists on dismissing Vica as being merely the dentist’s daughter). The princess is a fantastic creation, ever so slightly terrifying, she bullies her companion Miss Walker (Valka) horribly and is quite obviously used to getting her own way. Elizabeth knows she isn’t in love with Gian but allows herself to have her head turned – so swept up, as she is, by all these new experiences she is having in Florence. Elizabeth is all set to get herself into a situation.

Two Englishmen then arrive in Florence too, and set about ruffling feathers and undoing carefully laid plans. One is Charles; Elizabeth’s adored brother, the other is Peter – in Florence at Elizabeth’s mother’s request –  Elizabeth’s great childhood friend, himself in love with Elizabeth, and conscious of his almost penniless state. Naturally, Charles takes one look at Vica and is hopelessly smitten. Poor Charles is something of an innocent – and really not equal to Vica’s manipulations.

Pirates at Play is certainly well written and entertaining, yet there is just something about Violet Trefusis’ voice that I don’t engage with quite as much as I would like.

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cof

I had been aware of this novel for years, but really can’t think why I haven’t read it till now. Penelope Mortimer is a writer I have read just once before, Daddy’s Gone-A-Hunting, published by Persephone is a beautifully written novel about a woman’s nervous breakdown. With this novel, we are definitely in familiar territory but The Pumpkin Eater, in my opinion is an even better novel. This is a novel about the pitfalls of marriage and motherhood, Mortimer’s simple prose is wonderfully immersive, dreamy and intimate.

“I want to fly from a window and pour through the air like a wind of love to raise his hair and slide into the palms of his hands.”

Reading Daphne Merkin’s introduction to this edition, it is clear that there is a lot about this novel that is autobiographical. Merkin suggests that the novel reads like a work of catharsis. In this novel Mortimer has reproduced something of her own tumultuous marriage, and there are other painful episodes in the novel which come from life too.

We only ever know our narrator as Mrs Armitage, the doctor – to whom she is talking about the wool drawer that her mother had had years before – calls her this, and we never do learn her first name. Whatever her name; it is not Penelope; Mortimer may have taken much directly from her own life – but she did not put herself into her central character. Whatever else was happening in her private life, Penelope Mortimer had her own professional and creative life – Mrs Armitage has never been more than a wife and mother. Her husband, Jake is a screenwriter – he has a rich, creative, rewarding life, filled with travel and acclaim. Jake’s wife is part of his home life – an attractive feature of his home, an accessory. The couple live in London but are building a glass tower in the country – with the intention that it will one day, become the family home. Mrs Armitage proudly tells the doctor about the tower. We sense immediately this happy ever after is an unrealistic expectation, that fairy tale ending perhaps, that we so often strive for.

Speaking to us from her therapist’s couch as the novel opens, Mrs Armitage is at once a warm and confiding voice. so wryly, intelligent, I liked her enormously straight away.

“I don’t know who I am, I don’t know what I’m like, how can I know what I want? I only know that whether I’m good or bad, whether I’m a bitch or not, whether I’m strong or weak or contemptible or a bloody martyr – I mean whether I’m fat or thin, tall or short, because I don’t know – I want to be happy.”

Jake is our narrator’s fourth husband, she a mother to an enormous brood of children – from this, and her previous marriages – who are equally nameless – sixteen-year-old Dinah is the only one who we meet and whose name we learn. All the rest are a homogenous whole – the youngest is just three – and there is a nurse employed to help care for them. What will she do then if she doesn’t go on having children? She rather likes the idea of having yet another child, Jake is dead set against it. Throughout the novel we sense the children running in and out of rooms, calling for attention, as their mother Mrs Armitage is either falling apart – or trying to hold things together.

Slowly Mrs Armitage begins to piece together what is going on in her head, she has broken down in Harrods’ linen department weeping great tears over the linen.

“I began drinking because the thought that I was drinking gave me a kind of identity: each time I poured myself a brandy in the deserted afternoon I could say to myself ‘I am a woman who drinks.”

Mrs A is very comfortably off, Jake has been successful for a number of years, and she wants for nothing, and yet this comfortable existence only serves to highlight her isolation, depression and fragility. Mrs A has had her whole life directed by men, from her parents’ home she entered into a series of marriages and had children it is the one thing she knows how to do. At the heart of the problem of course is her marriage, her husband’s betrayals are bruising – yet all he can do is shrug them off – as little nothings. (Can I just mentioned I wanted to punch Jake).

She remembers a time when a friend from school came to stay, the fifteen-year-old Mrs A, had a quiet little passion for the vicar’s son, her friend Ireen is younger and quite the femme fatal. Ireen is desperate to have ‘a story’ to take back to school – and her friend is soon disenchanted with the girl who at school seemed so wonderful. There’s an uncomfortable encounter with a much older man, who Mrs A is reminded of suddenly, in the person of an unpleasant social acquaintance, when Jake brings all the film people to the house for a party.

The Pumpkin Eater is a powerful novel, I loved it. A book I had suggested to my book group – but they didn’t pick it, so I read it anyway. I would have been interested to talk to them about it – there are definitely feminist issues at the heart of it.

Edited to add – a big big thank you to Thomas from Hogglestock for this book, which I won on his blog.

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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.

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