One of the signs that a book has gone deep is the subsequent research or reading I do. This novel by Philip Hensher made me look into the 1971 War of Independence in Bangladesh. It is an event I knew little about even though I did know that the country emerged from what was East Pakistan and I had a vague memory of reading about the dominance of Pakistan, or West Pakistan, over the eastern part of the split country.
The novel tells the early life story of Hensher’s husband who is from Bangladesh. I was not struck by the early part of the book and felt as I often do when reading autobiographies that early chapters have to be waded through to get to the interesting parts. Yet, once into the book I was captivated. There is a large cast of characters since our hero Saadi was born into a large family of aunts and uncles.
It is the determination of a people to keep alive their culture and language that is the most effective aspect of the book. Bengali speakers are subject to humiliations and fear for their lives when Urdu speaking rulers try to force their culture on the east in an attempt to unify a country.
The family is upper middle class with plenty of servants but fear is distributed evenly in this era. Saadi’s grandfather hides his Bengali books and music in a room behind a door that is plastered over, such is the fear of discovery. As a baby, Saadi is passed from aunt to aunt and fed whatever he needs to ensure he does not cry out during the hours of curfew; who needs attention from soldiers patrolling the street?
The book passes back and forth in time. It starts when the war is over with a young Saadi playing in the street. When a neighbourhood boy tries to play with him it is the adults who step in. They know which family he comes from and what they did in the war. So, when we step back to a younger Saadi and a time of greater fear we see why the scars still exist years later.
The book works well as fiction even if it edges up against biography of the author’s husband. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I promised myself not to get involved in another manga series and yet here I am at the start of a trek through ‘Black Butler’ by Yana Toboso. Of course, I could step off the track before the end or even refuse to take the next step but, having read the first volume, it seems I am hooked!
As ever with my hinterland, I was on the search for something else when I came across the character of Ciel Phantomhive and this led to the discovery that there is a ‘Black Butler’ manga, musical, film and anime.
This first manga introduces us to Ciel Phantomhive and his butler who has extraordinary gifts when serving his master. Ciel is orphaned so is head of the Phantomhive family even though he is only thirteen years old. He runs the company but also has a crime fighting role in the London underworld as the Queen’s Guardian. This alternative universe appears Victorian and is intriguing because it is set in London but is Japanese in origin.
Sebastian Michaelis is the butler of the title. He serves and protects his young master using skills that seem beyond the ordinary. There is a household of servants supporting him but it is Sebastian who anticipates and serves his master’s every wish. The young Phantomhive is enigmatic himself. There are references to his parents’ death and strange circumstances that led to his position at the head of a crime fighting initiative. The set up is enough to keep me going. I am ready to move on to volume two!
This book by Tony Peake is short but it contains a big story in the limited number of pages. It is a story of awakening in 60s South Africa. Young Paul is different from his contemporaries in many ways, not least because his parents came to the country to avoid a grim post war Britain. Here, they hoped to build a life for themselves among the white population whose attitudes are alien and sometimes hostile.
Paul has to board during the week and is desperate to belong. He is included in a select group of pupils by a teacher who aims to broaden the minds of his charges by getting them to discuss the news. Of more worth to the young Paul is the attention from popular boy Andre Du Toit. The gang that gather around this boy vie for preferment. Du Toit encourages them by keeping a pecking order and regularly demoting boys so that their loyalty is always to them and not each other.
Paul watches as his parents also try to belong and the attention of Du Toit’s father. What starts as acceptance turns into something else when the questions about the regime threaten to spoil a useful friendship.
The story is told in flashback so we have an adult Paul driving in modern day South Africa in search of a person who may have been more influential than he realised when he was a boy. This person stands as a role model for the adult Paul and represents the moral code that was missing in apartheid South Africa. The crossing of boundaries involves the race issue as well as class and nationality and, finally, sexuality.
‘North Facing’ by Tony Peake is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
David Olusoga’s book has the sub-title ‘A Forgotten History’ so his work is timely since it sets the record straight in terms of the multi-cultural nature of British society. Since Roman times there has been a black presence on these islands and, as he shows in chapters that proceed chronologically, there has been a black participation in the life of the country ever since.
Some of the participants were not voluntary members of society, of course, since they were here as slaves. One of the sad trends related here is the fashion for young enslaved black boys or girls to attend the rich in their houses only to be cast out when they have grown older and less appealing.
The noble history of the campaign to end the slave trade is given a lot of space but so also is the less well known accommodations given to the merchants who built their fortunes on slavery. Compensation was paid! The role of Thomas Clarkson was given prominence even though the sons of Wilberforce tried to play down his contribution at the same time as promoting the part played by their father.
The chapter on the second world war was informative in terms of the racism debate and the extent to which British attitudes were shaped by the insistence that the American colour (color) bar was maintained over here. It is pleasing to think that the British were less prejudiced but the subsequent history, including the reluctance of the Attlee government to import black labour in the post war period, suggests that it was not an exclusively American attitude.
This was an excellent ‘opening up’ of an important part of British history and I was glad to have read it.
I loved the anime ‘Your Name’ so much that I bought the first volume of the manga version. I understand that the manga followed the film, which is interesting since more often it is the other way around. In this case, the book covers only part of the film even if it is the most interesting part: where rural high school student Mitsuha longs for a life in the big city and wakes up in the body of Taki, a high school boy in Tokyo; he wakes up as her. Their confusion and then accommodation of this situation gave the story the real drama and the real interest.
Mitsuha lives in a town called Itomori, a fictional construct for the story. She gets what she wants when she wakes as Taki but it is unclear why he should become her, there is no equivalent desire to become a girl. Nevertheless, he is most interested in the idea of having breasts and is usually caught out by Mitsuha’s younger sister physically exploring him/herself each morning!
The switch and switch back give the story interest but it is Taki whose personality is the most affected. He returns to his own body to find his dad is charmed by being called ‘daddy’ and the interest he has in a slightly older woman at his casual job moves on a pace when he finds a date has been arranged for him when Mitsuha was in his body.
The manga volume ends when the switching stops, something of a half way point in the film. The film takes several viewings so a manga version adds little but consolidates the sense that this was a fascinating story.
This manga by Japanese artist and writer Gengoroh Tagame provides an interesting insight into a society where being gay is rarely celebrated. The story involves a visit from a foreigner whose presence in the lives of a father and his daughter makes the father reflect on his views and prejudices.
Single parent Yaichi brings up his daughter Kana, earning a living by renting out property in the local area. This gives him time to look after his daughter, something he does with great love and care. Kana’s mother lives elsewhere but is still part of her life; she visits and stays in the family home but obviously has a high powered job elsewhere.
Into their lives comes Mike, a Canadian visiting Tokyo to see the childhood places his husband talked about before he died. Mike’s husband, Ryoji, was Yaichi’s brother.
Kana adores Mike from first meeting and insists he stay at their house. Yaichi feels obliged to agree and the manga tells the story of Mike’s time with the father and daughter. Yaichi confronts his own prejudices and sees Mike through his daughter’s eyes, coming to terms as he does so with his feelings about his brother and how he handled his coming out.
It is a brilliant tale of accepting people for who they are and seeing beyond labels. The homophobia in society is raised through reactions of local people to Mike’s arrival but, in what was for me the most poignant scene, the arrival of a teenage boy to their door shows that gay people do exist in Japan and the need for validation is of high importance.
‘My Brother’s Husband’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Kamila Shamsie is an amazing writer. I was blown away by ‘Burnt Shadows’ so was keen to read this novel, published this year. All the reviews refer to the story as a re-telling of Antigone and so it is but the contemporary setting works well and explores many of the dilemmas of young Muslims who seem to be judged in a way other sectors of our society are not. The unspoken expectation is that Muslims have to prove their loyalty on an almost daily basis. Step forward the newly promoted Muslim Home Secretary whose expedient pronouncements on how others should show their loyalty to the state serve his political ambitions more than they address the current tensions.
There are two families involved in this story: the Home Secretary and his privileged son; and the three children of a suspected terrorist, killed in action in some foreign land leaving them in London to move on and out of his shadow. The eldest child, Isma, is the sensible one, the studious one who has had to care for her twin siblings following the death of their mother and grandmother. The story starts with her and we start to piece together a story of brother and sisters from the Wembley area whose normality is striking.
In America where she is studying, Isma meets Eamonn (and deliberately not Ayman) the son of the Home Secretary. Drifting rather than working, he strikes up a friendship with her and through an offer to deliver a package ends up meeting the younger sister, Aneeka, back in London.
Aneeka is the most forceful of the characters and she sees in Eamonn an opportunity. Love gets in the way but the two develop a relationship that could make or break them.
Parvaiz is the brother who took a different path. His route to radicalisation is detailed in the chapters dedicated to his story but it is the impact he has on others that acts as the anchor of the book. All the other characters are ready to judge him for his actions but Aneeka, our Antigone figure, is the one who puts her views aside to do what she thinks is right.
This is a novel by a wonderful writer. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?