Wild Seed

‘I am here,’ she said in the same quiet voice. ‘You have me.’
‘Do I?’
‘As much as any man could.’

Black, feminist and the first science fiction writer to be a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, Octavia E. Butler is a writer I have long been meaning to read but of whom I was a little too much in awe. Such a deceptively small book, and yet Butler’s Wild Seed tackles some very troubling subjects in a surprisingly accessible manner. It’s not an easy thing for any writer to do. And yet she does it with such ease.

Wild Seed is the story of Anyanwu, chameleon-like, long-lived and with the power to manipulate and change her body, absorbing pain and healing herself and others. When she meets Doro, an equally enigmatic character who is drawn to her special powers, she is afraid but curious. But Doro is different from her; ancient, sly, dangerous, a parasitic spirit who kills to survive. He succeeds in persuading Anyanwu to leave her village in Africa and travel back to his settlement in the New World as his wife and she agrees in exchange for his promise that he won’t touch her family. But soon she realises that Doro has an agenda and will do anything to succeed. He is trying to breed a new people with special powers and has been traveling the world collecting specimen. And as a wild seed, one that he cannot fully understand and therefore control, Anyanwu must use her inherent survival skills in order to protect her descendants and remain free in every sense.

Wild Seed
is more than just a tale of migration and different cultures. Butler tackles the issues of possession, slavery and gender in a startlingly honest way. It’s savage and ugly and you wonder at the brutality of people so brilliantly magnified and realised by the spirit that is Doro – he would do anything to get what he wants and he knows just how to go about it.

Doro followed, thinking that he had better get her with a new child as quickly as he could. Her independence would vanish without a struggle. She would do whatever he asked then to keep her child safe. She was too valuable to kill, and if he abducted any of her descendents, she would no doubt goad him into killing her. But once she was isolated in America with an infant to care for, she would learn submissiveness.

And that is exactly the chilling lesson Anyanwu learns. Doro knows her weakness and that is her children.

Living for so long, death, morality and love mean something entirely different to him if at all. Anywanwu is the human, ethical side as Doro is the animal, biological. But this dichotomy is too simplistic for what Butler is trying to achieve. For life is all about the fight, the will to assert power, to pursue what you think is right and most of all, the search for companionship. And eventually, after many centuries, both Anyanwu and Doro find an uneasy truce, but not before her heart has been broken many times and Doro learns an unexpected lesson: compromise.

Wild Seed is storytelling at its richest. It’s harsh, chilling and brutal but not much more than what is recorded in history. Butler tackles the issues of slavery, possession and freedom but does this in a multi-layered, sensitive manner. A complex history deserves a complex treatment and that is exactly what she has achieved.

Doro had reshaped her. She had submitted and submitted and submitted to keep him from killing her even though she had long ago ceased to believe what Isaac had told her – that her longevity made her the right mate for Doro. That she could somehow prevent him from becoming an animal. He was already an animal. But she had formed the habit of submission. In her love for Isaac and for her children, and in her fear of death – especially of the kind of death Doro would inflict – she had given in to him again and again. Habits were difficult to break. The habit of living, the habit of fear … even the habit of love.

I’m not sure whether I can forgive Doro as Anyanwu does, although she doesn’t do it easily. But then imagining how one can sustain hatred and anger for hundreds of years isn’t easy and the idea of forgiveness in order to move on becomes something that one needs to think about. But for Anyanwu and Doro who only have each other, their love/hate relationship is stripped bare with time as they watch their loved ones and acquaintances die one after another.

I don’t think I’ve read anything like Wild Seed before. It’s not easy reading but it’s bold and imaginative and with echoes of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale with a dash of X-Men. It’s a tale of strength borne of suffering and I strongly urge you all to read it. I am now keen to read more by Butler including Kindred and Parable of the Sower, two of her most famous novels.

I read this as part of Aarti’s A More Diverse Universe 2013 Challenge.

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Small Hand

As I stood I felt a small hand creep into my right one, as if a child had come up beside me in the dimness and taken hold of it. It felt cool and its fingers curled themselves trustingly into my palm and rested there and the small thumb and forefinger tucked my own thumb between them. As a reflex, I bent it over and we stood for a time which was out of time, my own man’s hand and the very small hand held as closely together as the hand of a father and his child. But I am not a father and the small child was invisible.

Following my previous forays into spooky tales come Hallowe’en, this year I thought I’d have another crack at a Susan Hill ghost story. The Woman in Black, although atmospheric and very, very dark didn’t exactly scare the pants off me. And nor did We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson or The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore. But then I didn’t exactly read them alone in the witching hour. The Small Hand, subtitled A Ghost Story, has had some pretty spooked reviews and I thought it a fitting tale for the end of October. I was planning to read it at night but after a recent bout of horror films (The Shutter starring Joshua Jackson was excellent), I’m afraid I couldn’t quite make myself.

In this novella, Hill recalls a forgotten age, her language mimicking the great storytellers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and an England harking back to the pre-war era although it’s set in contemporary times. Adam Snow is an antiquarian bookseller on his way to see a client when he stumbles across a dilapidated house and overgrown garden. Once a tourist destination for garden lovers, The White House lies forgotten and disenchanted. He feels an urge to see the place and it is there that he first encounters a strange presence. As he increasingly suffers panic attacks and feels a small hand pulling him towards a watery grave, he confides in his brother Hugo, who had had a mental breakdown several years ago, and asks for his help. But Hugo wants to forget his past and is now happily married. Who is the little boy whose hand keeps finding his? And what is the secret behind the sorry house and garden?

Particularly chilling is Adam’s atmospheric journey into the mountains of France to an isolated Cistercian monastery reminiscent of Jonathan Harker’s foray into deep and dark Transylvania in Bram Stoker’s classic horror, Dracula. Adam is there to examine a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio for a client but is immediately consumed with fatigue and fear and is looked after by the gentle, if silent, monks of Saint Mathieu des Etoiles.

Although The Small Hand doesn’t offer many surprises, what lifts Susan Hill’s novella far above any ordinary tale of horror is her beautifully crafted prose. Every word has been weighed, every pause timed. Her descriptions evoke the slow and silent descent into horror as Adam succumbs to the lure of the creepy house and garden. He can’t help himself. And you can’t help yourself worrying what will happen to him. Hill is indeed a master at cranking up the tension. It’s a slow and deceptively calm book which will make you want to scream at the end. A little gem.

I read this as part of Carl’s R.I.P. VIII. Do go and see what others have been reading.

Evil and the Mask

I created you to be a cancer on the world.

Fumihiro Kuki is the youngest son of the powerful Kuki family whose business sprawls and controls most of Japan. His father has revived the eccentric family tradition of breeding a son in old age to become a cancer, one with which to destroy everything that people hold dear. As part of his training, he has planned Fumihiro’s life in such a way that when he turns 14, he will experience hell. And this will be the catalyst which will turn Fumihiro into a harbinger of doom. But Fumihiro is smart and aware and tries to stay one step ahead of his hateful father. And there is Kaori, a young girl who is adopted from an orphanage to keep Fumihiro company. Both starved of love, they only have each other. And so begins Evil and the Mask, a dark, twisted tale by Fuminori Nakamura.

It’s one of those novel where the less you know, the more you will be surprised. Like Nakamura’s previous novel, The Thief, the translation is spot on and smooth, and you can’t help but fall into the story. I was expecting something a little more doomsday-ish like in the Japanese ultra-violent films so popular in the West. But Evil and the Mask is subtler, deeper and is more about the potential effect of evil on the human psyche. The fact that Fumihiro tries to fight against his destiny even going so far as to have plastic surgery, that he sacrifices his own happiness for another’s, that he has found some sort of purpose to his life because of the realisation that it isn’t about himself anymore is something to ponder upon. Like The Thief, Nakamura digs deep into our fears and makes us confront what it means to be human and what it takes to resist evil when it won’t let you go.

Although I’m a huge fan of Nakamura’s style and enjoyed reading Evil and the Mask, my only sticking point is that the novel feels slightly passive when you compare it to The Thief. There is a lot of reflection but not much action – it’s as though Fumihiro is the perpetual outsider, looking into what his life should have been like. It’s a wonderful novel on regret and what-ifs but it may fall a little short if you are looking for something more exciting.

I would like to thank Soho Press for kindly sending me a copy to review.

I read this as part of Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 7 and Carl’s R.I.P. VIII. Do go and see what others have been reading.

Bellman & Black

It’s been 6 long years since Diane Setterfield’s novel The Thirteenth Tale touched me with its gothic structure encasing a twisted tale of siblings with red tresses. I squealed with excitement on learning her new novel, Bellman & Black, was to be published this year and almost fainted when I won a copy of a signed ARC from Orion Books which I collected from Goldsboro Books situated in a tiny lane filled with antiquarian bookshops connecting Leicester Square to Covent Garden. Wonderful!

Bellman & Black
is the tale of William Bellman, son to the heir of Bellman Mills so unceremoniously kicked out after making a hasty marriage and who subsequently disappears leaving his baby son and heartbroken wife in the small town of Whittingford. But William grows up hearty and loved and carries the potential of hope and happiness around him. But a childhood incident binds him to his playmates and will change his life forever although he doesn’t know it as he grows older and is hired by his uncle Paul to help run his family mill. Everything William touches flourishes and soon Bellman Mills’ success means they cannot do without William. But when he loses his mother, slowly his life begins to unravel. Even a happy marriage and children cannot stem the slow encroachment of the darkness which began that fateful day when William and his friends killed a rook when they were ten. While William struggles with his memories and suppresses his horror of death, his business empire expands until he comes up with the idea of creating a business which has never been seen before. He will call it Bellman & Black – but who is this mysterious Mr. Black who has haunted William since his mother’s death? And is William’s slow transformation into a workaholic man determined not to be bound by time really ok?

There is so much to love about this book. The writing style, the structure, the way in which Setterfield subtly interweaves all her incredible ideas into not only a coherent but a touchingly beautiful story devoid of over-sentimentalisation is wonderful. Bellman & Black is difficult to categorise. On one hand it is a gothic tale but split into two. The first half charting the rise of William Bellman and filled with laughter and happy memories. The second is a totally different side showing all the different shades of black so beloved of Bellman & Black’s emporium. The novel was somewhat different from what I anticipated, a straightforward contract regarding death, but it became something else entirely. I felt I had gone on a long journey with William and come out feeling so much for him. Setterfield masterfully makes the reader forget the past as well as she did William. For this novel is about thought and memory and rooks. There’s layer upon layer of dark and sorrow and yet it’s not empty of hope and love.

You can spot lots of Dickensian characters in Bellman & Black which sets the scene for the tale dusted with a touch of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. And you will learn a lot about mills and cloth and retail and especially about how to be a cracking businessman. And you will also learn about how to be a part of a community and how to be alone. And you will learn not to harm any rooks. Bellman & Black is a beautifully written tale. Just perfect.

I read this as part of R.I.P. VIII.

Slightly Peckish Wednesday

2 October, 2013

Umami Mart

Check out my second post on Kuala Lumpur eating at Umami Mart: Slightly Peckish. Go on!

In bookish news, I’m am SO excited about three new books being published in October: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch which I’m reading right now and let me tell you it is exquisite, Scott Lynch’s much-awaited The Republic of Thieves which is the third in the Gentleman Bastards series and the wonderfully dark Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield. Are you as excited as I am? I don’t think so!

Aarti is also rolling out A More Diverse Universe 2013 challenge again this year. I do hope you’ll participate and read a book with us. It’s a great way of trying out something new and also become a little more aware about some of the issues in genre fiction.

A More Diverse Universe 2013

Strange Weather in Tokyo

I’m torn in my feelings for Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo. Originally titled Sensei no Kaban which translates to My Teacher’s Bag/Briefcase (The Briefcase in the US), Kawakami’s tale is of 38 year old Tsukiko who leads a rather solitary life in Tokyo, living alone, working in a nameless, nondescript job, whose one pleasure is to unwind after another day at work with a cup of sake and something seasonal to eat at a local izakaya. It’s probably an existence that is familiar to a large portion of the single working population in Japan and elsewhere. It’s boring and familiar and comforting but you feel your life slowly ebbing away, lost forever. It is at one of these drinking joints that she meets one of her high school teachers whose name she can never remember. And so begins an unlikely friendship with Sensei (Teacher), meeting once in a while to have a drink and a bite to eat. It’s never planned and they pay separately. But slowly, a chance meeting with an old schoolmate at the annual teachers’ ohanami (cherry blossom viewing picnic) forces Tsukiko to confront her feelings and she begins to realise the growing importance of Sensei in her life.

I loved the slow and leisurely way in which Kawakami peels back the evolving friendship between Tsukiko and Sensei. Their formal manner towards each other even though they often get very drunk together. The slow revelation of each other’s histories. The still moment when you just want to sit next to someone. And yet, there is always this nagging sensation of discomfort that wouldn’t vanish. Although I understood and sympathised with their friendship, I found it difficult to accept anything more. Is it their 30 year age gap? Did I put myself in Tsukiko’s shoes and wonder whether I could fall for a man so much older than myself? I don’t know. Although a common theme in Japanese literature and popular culture during the mid-Showa era, I couldn’t love this book completely because of this central issue which is so relevant to the book and which, I think, mirrored Tsukiko’s misgivings at the beginning. But the two seem so in tune with one another, as though there isn’t another person in the world who gets them, who understands their silences, their reticence, their solitude, that in some ways it seems inevitable.

It’s a deceptively quiet book with some wild emotions churning just below the surface. I was taken with Kawakami’s description of the nondescript existence of so many single people in Tokyo. It resonates, on the one hand, with the yearning for a simple life but also for something more to fill the gap. Although I found it troubling, there is something about Strange Weather in Tokyo that stubbornly remains in my thoughts long after I finished the last page.

I would like to thank Portobello Books for kindly sending me a copy to review.

I read this as part of Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 7. Do go and see what others have been reading.

R.I.P. VIII has started!

9 September, 2013

RIP8

Hurray! It’s shiver me timbers time as Carl’s R.I.P. VIII has started. This is one reading challenge I look forward to every year as my thoughts turn to darker tales. I will once again be doing the Peril the First Challenge and this year have lined up the following books of which I hope to read four or more.

Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield – it’s coming out in October but I was lucky enough to win a copy!
The Twyning by Terence Blacker – all about rats
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis – time-traveling into the Black Death
Evil and the Mask by Fuminori Nakamura – can you be groomed to be a cancer?
Observatory Mansions by Edward Carey – a touch of gothic

And I’m still on the search for a book that will really scare the pants off me. Any suggestions? The Woman in Black didn’t work and nor did The Greatcoat. But I’m hopeful. Something spooky rather than gory. So suggestions please!