13 August, 2014
I only heard of Amanda Prantera a few months into this year as I happened upon a few reviews of her new book Mohawk’s Brood, a historical novel covering a sprawling English family with roots in Shanghai, a premise I eagerly lapped up. And so I was really excited to be offered a review copy from the publisher. What with work and family commitments all happening in the last three months, I’ve only just got to Mohawk’s Brood and now I wish I had known about Prantera before. Because although Mohawk’s Brood is a historical novel, Prantera has also written novels in other genres, gothic, mystery, literary, werewolves. I like an author with unpinnable styles.
The novel alternates between the viewpoints of several members of Mohawk’s extended family (both related by blood and not) starting with Mohawk (Henry), the patriarch who built an extensive empire beginning with his newspaper in Shanghai and branching out into racing horses, property and other ventures. After he returns to England with his family, leaving behind his eldest son Harry to take over the helm of his broadsheet empire, he concentrates on educating his remaining children (a total of nine including Harry) and plotting his family’s rise through the ranks and into the aristocracy. This isn’t easy as nothing is valued highter than blood even though you may have rivers of money flowing out of your ears. And it doesn’t help if you are Catholic. There is Little Ida, his eldest daughter, who has a brush with romance that is cruelly thwarted and yearning for a life, any life, and battling jealousy of her beautiful sister-in-law. Her younger sister Noël, singled out by her mother, Big Ida, to look after her and therefore remain single (even crueler). And Harry’s brothers, Lester who is training to be an architect, Tom, a budding socialist, Edwin, not quite right in the head, Neville, the naughty one, and Jack, the baby of the family. And then there is Rebecca, Harry’s sad and lonely wife, whose only deliverance is her son Sasha, who may also be the answer to Mohawk’s prayers.
Through their eyes and thoughts, Prantera unveils the history of early 20th century Shanghai, with its jazzy politics, refugees, the social whirlwind of expat life and the oncoming menace of the Japanese, aided by the once bright star that was Chiang Kai Shek. The sweep of history is broad and yet the little details inserted by Prantera spring Harry and Rebecca’s Shanghai into life just as much as they dampen the cool and muted life Rebecca then comes back to in England. I wasn’t sure whether the first person point of view would work for everyone, but the short, sharp chapters reveal more than what they intend and works beautifully to provide a capacious picture of a cross-cultural dynasty undergoing great changes and dispersal in their family and fortune along with history. I loved the nuggets of cultural history with which Prantera dots her novel; little details that bring everything into sharp relief. Mohawk’s Brood is a beautifully realised novel of a world that no longer exists. And above all, even though he doesn’t say a word himself, it is Harry who is the locus of Mohawk’s Brood. Harry, who has so many secrets.
Prantera is the author of sixteen novels and I cannot wait to read more by her, especially Strange Loop and Wolfsong.
Thank you Quartet Books for kindly sending me a copy of Mohawk’s Brood to review.
30 July, 2014
One of the things that drew me to Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi is the name Pereira, which holds a certain allure if you are interested in Sri Lankan colonial history, and that the novella is set in Portugal. I took this book with me on holiday to Lisbon and Porto and it filled me with pleasure to read of Dr. Pereira traversing the same, now familiar, streets of Lisbon.
Set one scorching summer in 1938, Dr. Pereira is given the task of setting up the Culture section of a Catholic newspaper, Lisboa. His interests veers towards classical French literature, which he translates in his spare time, but he is in search of a writer who can produce short, contemporary obituaries of Portuguese writers which can be published when the time comes. And so he chances upon an essay on death by a young graduate named Monteiro Rossi and immediately contacts him. However, Monteiro Rossi, a fiery half-Italian, has an agenda. He professes that he isn’t actually interested in death but needs the money so will write for Pereira. But the pieces he sends in are unpublishable, too controversial and critical of the present Portuguese government. When Pereira meets Marta, a young Communist eager to support Spain against the Franco’s fascists, he grows concerned for the young and naïve Monteiro Rossi who has fallen under her spell and is on a dangerous path. And so Pereira, who has always lived a solid, stable life begins to question his beliefs as his beloved country slowly falls under the spell of the fascists.
Pereira Maintains certainly packs a much larger punch than its slim volume would suggest. It takes its time, mimicking the slow, sweltering heat of a Portuguese summer. We learn of Pereira’s student days at Coimbra, his courting of his beloved, deceased wife, the snoopy caretaker at his office whom he is convinced is working for the secret police. It’s a world that is changing, becoming much darker, more violent and you begin see the start of the paranoia that will characterise Portugal under an authoritarian leadership. Tabucchi portrays the clash of two different worlds separated by one thin, fragile leaf of history. Pereira symbolises the old, free, unchanging, slow-paced world that is slowly disappearing. And Monteiro Rossi, the new, frantic, uncertain and perpetually changing world towards which Portugal inevitably heads. But between these two very different people, so different in their upbringing, age and beliefs, flares a sudden and life-changing friendship.
What keeps Tabucchi’s novel alive is Pereira himself. This solid, overweight man with a heart condition is an affable sort. But Tabucchi doesn’t stop there. He focuses on the small resistances Pereira maintains in his work, against his boss, the caretaker, and slowly magnifies them as the issues in Pereira’s life and his country grow. It’s a manifesto for one man’s life and beliefs. That just because you think you have already lived the best part of your life doesn’t mean that you cannot contribute to society and world events.
Pereira Maintains is a beautifully crafted book that starts slowly and grows in pace as it reaches its devastating climax. The shocking bits are brief and the sense of urgency heightened. It’s the last stand of a good man and a glimpse into the dark history of modern Portugal. Beautiful.
22 July, 2014
16 July, 2014
It’s hard to believe but chasing bawa has just turned 5. This blog began as a means to focus my reading and thoughts and it’s turned out to be so much more enjoyable and enriching, far more than I expected. And it’s all down to you. Thank you so much for stopping by and reading, lurking, commenting. This year has already proven to be rather hectic and ultra busy and I haven’t been able to post as much as I’d like, but my aim is to keep this blog fun for you and me so I will continue to post a little haphazardly until I settle back into my usual reading and writing routine. So please bear with me!
And as birthdays usually involve presents, do pop your name in the comments and I will pick one lucky reader who can choose a book they’d like to read from The Book Depository up to the value of £20. I will pick a name next Tuesday, 22nd July. And please let me know what you are currently reading as I’m nosy like that (I’m currently reading Mohawk’s Brood by Amanda Prantera and will be starting The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness).
Please let me know if you don’t want to be included in the draw otherwise your name will go in the hat. And please note that the giveaway is only open to the countries to which The Book Depository offers free delivery (which should be most of you, I think. If not, SORRY!)
10 July, 2014
The second issue of Shiny New Books! is now online where you will find my review of Lauren Owen’s sensational debut, The Quick. Do go and have a gander to see what’s on offer, what other bloggers have been reading and what they recommend. Hope you are all enjoying your summer and trying out new books!
3 July, 2014
To celebrate the paperback publication of Revenge by Yoko Ogawa, Vintage Books has kindly handed over a bundle of books by Ogawa to give away to a lucky winner.
The winner of this wonderful prize is MEE!
Congratulations and please e-mail me your address whereupon I will fly to the post office and send off the bundle. Enjoy the books!
Thank you all for kindly commenting and RTing about the giveaway. I’m a little surprised that not more of you commented for the books but I do realise that the giveaway was only open to UK readers (sorry!) and perhaps many of you have already read Ogawa’s novels? I do hope that you will all give Yoko Ogawa’s books a try if you haven’t already – Ogawa certainly writes about contemporary Japan in an interesting way.
Revenge by Yoko Ogawa is published in paperback on 3 July (Vintage, £7.99). To coincide with the paperback release of Revenge, Vintage will be reissuing The Diving Pool, The Housekeeper and the Professor and Hotel Iris in paperback.
26 June, 2014
Eimear McBride’s debut novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing seems to have burst onto the literary scene out of nowhere. First published by the independant Galley Beggar Press and now Faber & Faber, it has scooped the Goldsmiths Prize, the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Incredible. And the reviews have all used the word ‘genius’.
And it is. Its experimental, stream of consciousness style is probably not for everyone. It’s a slim book which took a good two weeks for me to read because its staccato rhythm and incomplete sentences, often just words or a jumble of words, stick in your throat and kick out at you, screaming for help. The reading experience is as painful as the experiences of the unnamed narrator, a young girl with an older brother who survived cancer as a child. They live with their mother, their father long gone, abandoned. It’s a harsh world, the siblings trying their best to dodge bullying at school, the indifference of adults, the unwanted attentions of a dodgy relative.
McBride’s raw and visceral style is so difficult. Her themes in her novel, illness, dysfunctional families, abuse, despair and pain, are so tough to take in at times. And there were many times when I didn’t want to continue reading the book. But you want to know why the girl keeps choosing such destructive options for herself. And then you start to see. The little glimpses of why people would act in such a way. How only pain can erase pain. And that if you have been deprived of love and warmth, you would search for love wherever you can get it even if you know that there is something not quite right.
I can’t say I liked A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. It’s bleak and oh so grim. So grim that you begin to see the oppressive quality of religion as warmth. It is probably the second most depressing book I’ve read since Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. But I can’t deny that it is one of the few books which has hit me like a sledgehammer. McBride says that readers don’t need to be drip fed literature, that we want and need difficult writing and to be challenged. And she’s right. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is like nothing I’ve read before and it is brilliant.