Recording the audiobook


It started out as a bit of a joke. Shortly after I heard that my US publisher Norton had sold the audio rights to The World Between Two Covers to Audible, I received an email from the producers, asking what sort of actor I thought would be suitable to narrate it.

Amused, I posted the query on Facebook, whereupon lots of friends started pitching in with (often rather tongue-in-cheek) suggestions.

Then someone said I should put myself forward. Then another person said it. And another. Pretty soon the comment thread was full of friends telling me to ask Audible to let me do the narration myself.

At first, I didn’t take the idea seriously. I’m not an actor and, being married to someone who trained as one, I’m only too aware of the skill and effort that goes into reading something engagingly. It seemed arrogant to suggest that I should be the person to take the job on.

I might never have thought any more about it had another friend, author Carrie Gibson, not got in touch. She said she wished she had opted to narrate the audioversion of Empires Crossroads, her history of the Caribbean, herself. The actor had done a fine job, but listening to it now, she didn’t feel the book sounded like her. She thought I should go for it.

I looked back at the email from Audible. In the small print towards the end, there was a section that said the producers did consider authors to narrate their own work for certain kinds of (mostly non-fiction) projects.

I doubted they’d look twice at me. Apart from anything else, I was based on the wrong continent. Still, feeling rather devil-may-care after all the Facebook banter, I decided I had nothing to lose and sent back an email saying that I’d like to be considered if they thought I might fit the bill.

A few months later, I heard back from the producers. They were fixing up a studio for the recording in Archway, north London. Could I let them have my availability for June?

That was when the panic set in. Oh crumbs. I was really going to have to do this.

Luckily, my friends came to the rescue once again. Radio presenter Sara Mohr-Pietsch, who I know from university, kindly let me accompany her to a recording session. From this I learned the value of using hand gestures and smiling to get colour into certain words and phrases, as well as the importance of taking regular breaks. ‘You’ll find you do weird things when you’re reading,’ she said.

In addition, several of the translators and experts who helped me when I was researching the project and book provided advice on the pronunciation of numerous words, names and phrases that I had only ever seen written down.

And so it was that, last Wednesday, I pitched up nervously in Archway for my first session. I was shown into a foam-lined room not much bigger than a wardrobe, the light went on on the microphone and it was time to begin.

Luckily, my producers Alys and Katie were very friendly and patient as I stumbled my way through those opening pages at the start of each session. More than once, I found myself cursing my writing as I faced yet another labyrinthine sentence guaranteed to tie my tongue in knots and have me gasping in its wake.

Still, as time went on and I relaxed, the process became easier. Sara was right: it turns out the weird thing I do when I’m reading out loud is conducting myself with my left hand. It seemed to help with getting some of the meaning across, however. By the end of the first hour or so I was starting to enjoy myself.

This was helped by the regular communal breaks that brought together all the actors and producers recording books. On the first day, I found myself chatting over a cup of tea with someone engaged in narrating lengthy battles between dwarves and elves for a fantasy novel. The next morning, a grey-haired actor told me about the gothic story he was reading: set in Victorian times, it centred on a scientist engaged in swapping around people’s brains.

By the end of the second session, we had seven out of 12 chapters in the can and I was rather tired. Still, it had been a lot of fun and I was enjoying the opportunity to narrate my words myself.

I’m back in the studio to finish the job later this week. Fingers crossed my voice holds out!

Translation pitches (and a revelation)


Last night, English PEN hosted an experiment at the Free Word Centre in London. As part of European Literature Night, which in the seven years it has been going has grown from a single evening to a festival stretching over several weeks, The Translation Pitch saw eight translators pitching eight novels that have not yet been translated into English to a panel of industry experts. At stake was a £250 PEN samples grant, which would pay for a chunk of the winning text to be translated and shared in the hope of attracting an English-language publishing deal.

The competing books were varied. They included a Danish crossover novel about a school shooting (Jesper Wung-Sung’s Proper Fractions, pitched by Lindy Falk Van Rooyen), a 640-page-long work of German metafiction (Verena Rossbacher’s Small Talk and Slaughter, presented by Anne Posten) and a prize-winning collection of interlinked Hungarian short stories (Krisztina Tóth’s Pixel, championed by Owen Good).

After the pitch and an – often powerful – reading of an extract by an actor, the translator received feedback from the panel: writer and senior editor at Granta Max Porter, agent Kerry Glencourse, and translator and founder of publisher And Other Stories Stefan Tobler.

The panel’s comments were illuminating. As well as revealing the strengths and problems of each project, they also shed light on what publishers look for when they consider bringing works to the English-language market. Books with clear narrative lines and easy, one-sentence hooks seem to have a better chance of being published (although middle-of-the-road commercial fiction is likely to be passed over, as there are lots of home-grown writers doing that). In addition, books that can easily be compared to the work of well-known authors tend to have an advantage because, as Porter observed, ‘publishers are lazy creatures’.

At times, the feedback made for somewhat depressing listening. With the panel generally shying away from works that sounded structurally or linguistically complex – or that used settings outside the author’s home nation – it seemed as though the odds were stacked against more inventive, experimental works making it through the translation bottleneck into English. With editors reportedly ever more under pressure to take on ‘marketable’ books, you could have been forgiven for thinking that we are in danger of only getting access to works that reinforce our preconceptions about other places and people.

Thankfully, however, the winning book did not conform to all these prescriptions. Penned by a writer who has been billed as ‘the Bulgarian Balzac’, Vladimir Zarev’s Ruin sounds like a fabulous read. Now in its ninth edition since its publication in 2003, it has apparently been hailed by critics in countries such as Germany as the novel about life in Eastern Europe since the fall of communism.

Indeed, what swung it for the book – along with translator Angela Rodel’s obvious passion for the project – was probably her observation that German publishers were laughing at English-language publishers because they have failed to pick up Zarev. This, Rodel claimed, was an ‘outrage’ and she was eager to ‘unleash Ruin on the anglophone market’.

With commendations also going to the Rossbacher and Pierre Autin-Grenier’s That’s Just How It Is, whose would-be translator Andrea Reece made a similarly compelling pitch, it was clear that passion still wins the day. Let’s hope it long continues so.

For me, it was a particularly thought-provoking evening: shortly before the pitches began, an email had come through on my phone. It was from my editor Helen at Bloomsbury and attached was the final version of the cover design for my novel, Beside Myself (below – I hope you like it). For the first time, I had seen what it will look like when it’s published next year. It was a moment of great delight and pride.

Hearing about those eight fascinating novels that may never get an English-language deal put that experience into context. It made me feel once more how extraordinarily lucky I am to be writing in a language that gives me the chance to reach the sort of readership that English does – and how very much further we have to go before we can all truly read the world.

revision (1)

Book of the month: Alain Mabanckou

James Baldwin with Marlon Brando on a civil rights march in 1963A while ago, I got a message from a reader in the US. In the wake of the recent widely reported police killings of unarmed African-Americans and the unrest that erupted in several cities as a result, she was keen to read something that would help increase her understanding of racial tensions in her home country. Had I encountered any such books on my literary adventures that I could recommend?

Conscious that this was very much not my area of expertise, I made a few tentative suggestions of things I hoped would at least be a starting point. Chief among them were Alex Haley’s reimagining of the experience of slavery, Roots, and the civil rights activist James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.

In fact I had read Baldwin’s most famous book only a few months before and my head was still full of its powerful, disturbing and urgent arguments. So, when I heard that leading Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou (who now divides his time between Paris and the US), had written an ode to him, I knew I had to take a look.

Addressed directly to Baldwin, who died in 1987, Letter to Jimmy is a reading of his life and work. Weaving in extracts of his writing and the words of many other important commentators, such as Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X, it follows Baldwin’s life from the streets of Harlem to the French Riviera. In this way, it reveals how Baldwin’s views developed, as well as their significance and resonance in Mabanckou’s own life.

The intimacy of the portrait neatly demonstrates the link between the personal and the political. Through descriptions of photographs of Baldwin, the tensions with his paranoid preacher stepfather and his encounters with homophobia, Mabanckou reveals how our experiences shape our world view and vice versa, and shows how, as he writes in his postscript ‘the life of every author is often its own novel, even a tragic one’.

The narrative bristles with insights. From the different challenges facing migrants in Europe and black Americans, to the ongoing problems in many parts of Africa, where, ‘aid is nothing more than veiled prolonging of enslavement’, Mabanckou engages fully and frankly with many of the passionate and often furious arguments Baldwin made throughout his life.

He has some thought-provoking things to say about African writing too. I was particularly struck by his comments on the rise of what he calls ‘child soldier’ literature – something I encountered several times during my quest – and the pressures he claims that many contemporary authors feel to write exclusively about the negative aspects of their compatriots’ experience. ‘If we are not careful, an African author will be able to do nothing but await the next disaster on his continent before starting a book in which he will spend more time denouncing than writing,’ Mabanckou observes.

These sometimes controversial observations are couched in prose – translated by Sara Meli Ansari – that is often breathtaking in its clarity and beauty. My copy is filled with notes exclaiming ‘yes!’ and ‘wow’ alongside phrases such as this description of Cameroonian author Mongo Beti, who ‘believed that a writer should stand up, place blame where it is due and roar in the face of current events’, or this portrayal of the hidden deprivation a few steps from the bustle of Paris’s prestigious boulevards: ‘behind the thoroughfare, there is always a dark alleyway, a dead end, a cul-de-sac. And at the end of this alley, a man is seated on a bench, a can of beer in his hand.’

That said, the passively sexist slant of the writing is disappointing. With the ubiquitous use of ‘he’ – instead of ‘one’, ‘he or she’, varying ‘he’ with ‘she’, or a plural alternative – and pretty much exclusive reference to works by men, it would be possible to come away from this book thinking that the issues Mabanckou discusses are a purely male preserve.

That would be a shame, because this is a work that deserves to be read widely by people of all genders and ethnicities. A masterclass in the way texts and writers can talk to one another across linguistic, temporal, geographical and political boundaries, it has lessons for everyone – not only on some of the injustices that continue to blight human society, but on writing, storytelling and what words have the power to do. A great and important book.

Letter to Jimmy (Lettre à Jimmy) by Alain Mabanckou, translated from the French by Sara Meli Ansari (Soft Skull, 2014)

Picture: James Baldwin with Marlon Brando on a civil rights march in 1963, from Wikimedia Commons

My week in New York


Last week was extraordinary. I was in New York for the publication of The World Between Two Covers, the US edition of my book inspired by my year-long journey through a book from every country. There’s no way I could do justice to everything that happened in a single blog post, but here’s a rundown of some of the highlights.

The week started off with a reading and presentation at WORD, a very cool independent bookshop in Brooklyn. The store was a fitting location as that day was Independent Bookstore Day in the US, so it was great to be taking part in one of the events to mark that.

You can see me standing outside WORD in the photo above. Although the picture doesn’t really show it, the weather was glorious. I was worried that that might make it hard to persuade people to spend part of the afternoon sitting inside looking at my PowerPoint slides, but lots of people turned up. The WORD staff even had to put out more chairs.


Monday May 4 was the official publication date (although the book was actually in many stores before that), so that day Steve and I went out for dinner with my lovely editor Elisabeth Kerr from Liveright/Norton and Sarah Levitt from ZPA, who is a partner agent with my UK agent, Caroline Hardman, and represented my book in the US.

It was great to spend more time with Elisabeth and meet Sarah in person as we have been in contact over email for many months. We got on very well and had lots to talk about – in fact Sarah and I met for coffee later in the week and spent a good hour and a half talking solidly about books.

As if treating me to dinner wasn’t enough, the next day Elisabeth arranged for me to meet and have lunch with a number of people from the Norton team. Again, it was an opportunity to put faces to the names of many people I have been in touch with remotely since Norton bought the book in August last year. I was also delighted to make the acquaintance of Bob Weil, publishing director of Liveright/Norton, who has worked on some incredible projects over his illustrious career.

That evening saw me speaking at Book Culture on W 112th Street in Manhattan. Once again, there was a lovely encounter – this time with Ana Cristina Morais, one of the volunteers who translated a book for me to read from São Tomé and Príncipe back in 2012. I was thrilled to meet Ana at last, as you can see from the photo below.

Ana Cristina

Wednesday brought a change of direction. I met with the team at Bloomsbury, including publishing director George Gibson, who will be publishing my novel Beside Myself  in the US next year, in tandem with Bloomsbury’s UK team. It felt strange to switch from talking about world literature to talking about fictional swapped identical twins, but everyone quickly made me feel at home. Afterwards, I had lunch with my Bloomsbury US editor, Lea Beresford, and the two of us got on like a house on fire – so much so that I’m afraid I made Lea late for her afternoon presentation as we were enjoying talking so much.

Thursday was my last full day in the city, but even that didn’t go by without some book business, this time in the shape of chats about ideas with some of the Norton team, including publicist Cordelia Calvert. Cordelia is already doing a great job because on Friday, just before I left New York, the hugely popular magazine Entertainment Weekly hit the newsstands, featuring The World Between Two Covers on its Must List. You can see the piece below in all its glory in the copy I picked up at Penn Station on my way to the airport – a fabulous end to the trip.


Thanks to Ana and Steve for the pictures.

US publication day


It’s official: The World Between Two Covers is published in the US. Huzzah!

To celebrate the occasion, Steve and I returned to Coney Island’s Steeplechase Pier in New York this morning to restage the photo at the top of this blog. That original snap was taken in January 2012, a few days after I’d embarked on my quest to read a book from every country in a year.


Today, the weather is rather nicer, the boardwalk has been refurbished and my hair is longer. Oh, and the books I’m reading have changed too…

IMG_9193Photos by Steve Lennon

Book of the month: Cao Wenxuan


It’s always a pleasure to hear from fellow literary explorers. Since I began my year of reading the world in January 2012, I have come into contact with a large number of people who have embarked on projects to read more widely and discover what stories from other places have to offer.

I’ve heard from people reading their way around continents and language groups, as well as others armchair travelling through time, sampling one text from each year. By far the most popular notion, however, seems to be the idea of travelling the world through children’s books. To date, I know of at least five people who are doing or plan to do this and I’m sure there are many more out there.

So when I heard that author and translator Helen Wang (one of the many kind people who shared their expertise with me while I was researching my book) had translated a children’s story by the Chinese author Cao Wenxuan, I was intrigued to read it.

My interest grew when I read a little more about Cao and the story, Bronze and Sunflower, in the notes at the back of the book. According to them, Cao is often described as China’s Hans Christian Andersen. What’s more, the story was inspired by the childhood experience of a friend of his during the Cultural Revolution, but didn’t fall into place for a long time until Cao had a vision of the Chinese characters for ‘Bronze’ and ‘Sunflower’ one Chinese New Year.

The result is a moving account of two children brought together by loneliness, and bound to each other through familial affection and the determination to survive. Sunflower is the daughter of an artist banished to do hard labour at a rural cadre school and Bronze is the mute son of impoverished villagers who live nearby. After Sunflower’s father dies, Bronze persuades his parents to take her in and the family devotes itself to giving her a decent life in the face of extreme hardship that threatens repeatedly to destroy them.

Bleak though the premise may sound, the book is in fact extraordinarily beautiful. In addition to the touching affection Cao creates between the children and the other family members, his (and Wang’s) vivid, lyrical and sometimes startling descriptions shimmer from the page. From the way Sunflower’s father’s ‘cardboard folder flapped like the wings of a giant bird and released his paintings to the sky’ to the plague of locusts ‘swirling and thrashing like an army of screaming black demons, their mouths gaping, their tongues flicking’, the book is a masterclass in the pictures words can paint.

The story is engrossing too. With Bronze and Sunflower battling to survive and thrive, the stakes could not be higher. As a result, Cao is able to weave in some sophisticated observations about the realities of poverty. He also powerfully portrays the experience of living in a place where services like health care and education are seen as privileges and not rights – thought-provoking stuff for children in many parts of the English-speaking world, who may be more used to grumbling about than begging to go to school.

Gender roles are a little problematic in the book: although Sunflower is full of gumption, she almost always blunders and has to be rescued from her scrapes by the more ingenious Bronze. The situation is rarely reversed, although Sunflower does teach Bronze to read and write, making for one of the most triumphant moments of the book, when Bronze silences the sneers of a crowd by stepping forward and painting his name on a wall.

In addition, it is slightly difficult to know what age range of children would get most out of the book. The publisher, Walker Books, recommends it for children aged nine and over, and says that it can be read independently by confident readers or read aloud by parents, but certain aspects of it feel better suited to children of other ages. While the narrative’s somewhat graphic descriptions of violence and suffering, and sophisticated vocabulary would test most nine-year-olds, the somewhat naive, innocent tone of the story makes it feel more appropriate for younger children.

From conversations I’ve had with Wang, I understand that this is a common challenge when it comes to bringing Chinese children’s literature into English – an interesting insight, perhaps, into the different expectations of childhood in Chinese and Western culture.

All the same, this is an absorbing and beguiling book. Despite being nearly 25 years outside the target readership age, I found myself gripped by many of its episodes and moved by its clear, elegant and often beautiful descriptions. However old you are, this book will expand your horizons – whether you’re engaged in a reading quest or not.

Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan, translated from the Chinese by Helen Wang (Walker Books, 2015)

Gearing up for the US launch

Excitement is building in my little south London flat. It’s now less than two weeks until the publication of The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe, the US edition of my book inspired by my year-long journey through a book from every country.

In nine days’ time, Steve and I will be getting on a plane bound for New York, ready for publication day on May 4. It’ll be the first time I’ve been back to the city since January 2012, when the photo at the top of this blog was taken on Steeplechase pier, Coney Island (I wish I could remember which book I was reading then).

While we’re in New York, I’ll be meeting many of the team at Liveright/Norton who’ve been working so hard to bring my writing to the US. I’ll also be doing a couple of events: one at WORD in Brooklyn on Saturday May 2 at 1.30pm (the store will be celebrating Independent Bookstore Day, so there’ll be lots of things going on) and one at Book Culture in Manhattan on Tuesday May 5 (time TBC).

If you’re in New York that week, it’d be lovely to see you there. In the meantime, you can find the US version of my author film, explaining some of the ideas behind the book, above. Not long to go now…

Film by vloop.

London Book Fair: a blogger’s-eye view


London Book Fair has a special place in my heart. Three years ago, when I was in the thick of my year of reading the world, I took a day off from work and ventured there clutching a long list of countries that I had yet to find books from.

I had no idea what to expect and I’m sure I must have seemed like a crank to many of those I spoke to that day (the people at the Sultanate of Oman’s stand certainly weren’t impressed). Nevertheless, bumbling from stall to stall on the trail of national literary associations, publishers and agencies who might be able to help, I did make some useful connections. These included a fascinating discussion with Justin Cox from the African Books Collective, who ended up pointing me in the direction of several of my reads for the project. I came away from that day tired but happy, and clutching an armful of books.

The great thing about the Book Fair, as I discovered that day, is that it is vast and diverse enough to have something to offer all comers (well, certainly all those who like books). If you want to spend the day finding out about threats to writers in authoritarian regimes, you can do that. Interested in the latest gizmos and reading accessories? Look no further. Passionate about Mexico? You’ve come to the right place (particularly as that’s the focus country for this year). Keen to find out how you can best self-publish and market your novel? Check.

As a result, everyone does come, from the most tentative of aspiring newbies to great literary stars, and from one-woman back-room publishing outfits to the biggest names in the game. You’ll see them all: agents, authors, bloggers, editors, publicists, readers, translators and even a few lost tourists milling around under the great arched roofs of Kensington Olympia, holding meetings, sealing deals, helping themselves to sweets from little bowls on the end of counters, trying to work out where they are on the floor plan (see below), and generally talking, reading and thinking about books.


This year, as I wasn’t on the trail of titles from particular nations, I decided to focus my attention on the packed programme of talks and events. So I spent yesterday flitting between small areas of seating with names like the English PEN Literary Salon, Author HQ and the Literary Translation Centre to catch as many things as I could.

I covered a lot of ground. I watched interviews with leading Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska (who told me afterwards as she was signing my copy of her novel Leonora that she had been very nervous about speaking in English – it didn’t show) and bestselling British debut novelist Emma Healey. And I listened to a fascinating talk on whether television drama is the new literature – apparently not, I was relieved to hear, although the more fluid way that people consume stories these days (from short-form snippets to binges on box sets) has opened up the possibility for metanarratives that dwarf even the chunkiest Victorian novels. In extreme cases, these pose the risk that writers committing years of their lives to creating the screenplays for certain shows might burn out, a scenario that sounds almost Kafkaesque.

I also caught a discussion on crime and thriller novels. According to critic Jake Kerridge ‘discussability’ is key to many such books’ success. And, by the way, if you have a crime novel or thriller on your computer that you think should be published, Harper Collins’ Killer Reads imprint is accepting unsolicited manuscripts until this Friday.


However, as I’ve found in previous years, the most interesting Book Fair events had to do with translation and the way books travel across borders (or don’t). I was intrigued by a discussion about ‘What Not To Translate’. The participants seemed to agree that while translators should not censor or control which works travel according to their personal political views, time pressures inevitably mean that they are more likely to accept commissions for books with which they feel a degree of sympathy.

A talk on the role of literary agents in connecting continents was similarly fascinating, particularly as agents are still a relatively new concept outside the English-speaking world.

The final event of the day was among my favourites. Bringing together translators Daniel Hahn, Deborah Smith and Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, and Syrian author and illustrator Nadine Kaadan, it picked out the titles they had worked on for Reading the Way, a project by Outside In World to find, translate and try out children’s books from around the world with UK audiences.

I was particularly taken with the sound of El cuento fantasma, a Costa Rican story that Hahn translated about a book in a library that is afraid of being read. They also passed round a French/Arabic version of Elle et les autres by Nahla Ghandour, which, as you can see from the picture of the title page below, is read from right to left – an added challenge when you’re translating illustrated books from languages like Arabic and Hebrew into English because it means the illustrations may have to be altered too.


But perhaps the best thing about the day was the number of friends and acquaintances I bumped into. From fellow writers and bloggers to people I’ve met through events and those who helped me read my way around the world, it seemed I could barely turn a corner without seeing someone I knew.

It was a far cry from the experience of three years ago, when I wandered nervously around the stands, plucking up the courage to introduce myself. As I stood on the gallery of the main hall, looking down at the Bloomsbury stand and imagining what it will be like to see my novel Beside Myself  there next year, it struck me once more how far this journey has taken me.


London Book Fair runs until Thursday April 16. With thanks to Literature Across Frontiers for giving me a ticket.

Book of the month: Bina Shah


It’s been a month of great reading. Funnily enough, through no deliberate intention, many of my favourite reads of the past few weeks have been novels about women in different parts of the planet. From Chantel Acevedo’s scintillating evocation of Cuba’s past in The Distant Marvels to Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman – an engrossing exploration of the consequences of a lifetime’s bibliophilia in contemporary Beirut – I have found myself wowed by stories revealing the world through women’s eyes. I also took a detour into 20th-century writing to spend a few hours pinioned to my sofa by Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House – a chilling masterclass in how to construct a gripping plot.

Those in the UK keen to get their hands on a good read might find it easier to choose one of the titles mentioned above as, although March’s book of the month is published in the US, it isn’t out in the UK – yet – (although you can get it online). In fact, my copy of A Season for Martyrs was sent to me from Karachi by the author herself.

As you can see from the photo above, it came in an envelope covered in stamps. Inside was the beautifully colourful book, signed with a personal message from Bina Shah, who was one of the Pakistani writers readers recommended to me back in 2012. The novel’s vibrant jacket wasn’t the only striking thing about it: the edges of the pages were rough from where the paper had been cut to make the copy (see below).


The pages of my edition may be rough, but the same is certainly not true of the novel. At the heart of the book is ambitious student-cum-TV-news-researcher Ali, who is caught up in covering the controversial return to Pakistan of exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007. As he struggles to reconcile his liberal political beliefs and secret relationship with his Hindu girlfriend with his feudal Sindhi family’s views and fraught history, we see something of the national tussle for control and identity played out on the personal level. With myths and episodes from Sindh province’s long, rich and turbulent past interspersing the narrative, what emerges is a powerful and complex picture of contemporary Pakistan.

Shah’s tone is one of the first things that draw you in. Whether she is portraying the health gripes of a British Empire functionary, capturing the patter of a bus conductor in Islamabad, or describing the travails of tenth century Sufi saints – ‘even if you were regarded as the guardian of all waterways […] you could tire of riding a palla fish’ – her prose is engaging, funny, direct and refreshing. It makes her well-equipped to unmask and send up the ‘etiquette of hypocrisy’ that influences much of what goes on in the novel.

Yet satire is just one element in this novel. There are flashes of beauty in Shah’s writing and succinct insights that leave you marvelling at her skill for wrapping human emotions in words. When Ali contemplates his dysfunctional home life, for example, Shah finds a powerful simile in the buildings where he grew up:

How many other houses in their sedate neighborhood, with its old houses built in the seventies, its overgrown trees lining the zigzag streets that flooded during every monsoon season, were like theirs: genteel on the outside, wasting away from neglect on the inside? How many other families lived like fractured glass, cracked but still holding up within the constraints of their frames?

In addition, the novel contains some extraordinarily gripping episodes. From the account of Jeandal Shah’s fight to the death with a cheetah in 1827 and the night-long chess tournament between the young jailer Ahmed and a condemned Pir hours before the overlord’s execution in 1943, to the violent protest that leads to Ali to witness the injustice of the police firsthand, the book brims with urgent and troubling events.

Very occasionally there is a slight self-consciousness to the telling as Shah seems to try to explain historical context or 21st-century Pakistani politics – perhaps to English-language readers in other parts of the world. Now and then, as a character steps forward with a suspiciously slick explanation of events or a chunk of exposition bobs to the surface of the narrative, it is as though the author and her protagonist glance towards the camera, briefly breaking the spell.

(That said, the issue of how much cultural knowledge to assume in readers who may be far removed from the events described is a fine balancing act. Had Shah, who is well-versed in writing about Pakistan for readers elsewhere through her journalism for publications such as The New York Times and The Guardian, included less overt explanation she may well have run the risk of leaving people behind.)

Quibbles aside, though, this is a powerful and engrossing book. It has drama, beauty, wit, characters to care about and important things to say. It is, as Ali puts it himself, a story about what it’s like ‘to be lost and adrift and struggling at sea, and then, finally, to see the shore and begin swimming toward it with all one’s might’.

Now that it’s reached the US, I very much hope a British publisher picks it up so that A Season for Martyrs makes it to the shores of the UK soon too.

A Season for Martyrs by Bina Shah (Delphinium Books, 2014)

Book signing in Covent Garden


Book signings are funny things. You do your talk and read your extract, and then you sit at a table, crossing your fingers that someone will have liked what you said enough to actually buy your book.

Sometimes you can wait a while. Other times, as happened when I gave a talk at a bookshop in south London recently, you are surrounded by so many people asking questions and wanting to talk about books that the signing itself is a bit of a scramble – I think several people went home with rather eccentric variations on my signature that day!

What always makes the experience better, though, is when people I know through the project are there. After my Around the World in 10 Books event with Scott Pack at the Bath Literary Festival a couple of weeks back, I was delighted to be joined at the signing table by Robin Patterson, one of the volunteers who translated a book for me to read from São Tomé and Príncipe. Scott and I had discussed Our Musseque, the Angolan novel by José Luandino Vieira that Robin had translated, and it was great to see Robin signing copies of that book.

Of course, it’s not possible for many of those who I’ve met virtually on my reading adventures to get to events in the UK. People who follow this blog are spread all over the world. My stats show that it has been viewed by folk in well over 200 territories, including in many places like Mayotte, New Caledonia and the Northern Mariana Islands that didn’t feature on the UN list I worked from for my quest. So the chances are that many of you won’t be in Covent Garden at 6.30pm next Tuesday evening.

But if by some miraculous chance you are in London that day, I’d love it if you’d join me for an event I’m doing at the wonderful Stanfords bookshop on Long Acre in Covent Garden. If you come along, you’ll get to hear me speaking about the project, how it started, some of the amazing stories and people we encountered along the way and how the book developed – and ask any questions you want (within reason…).

And if you haven’t been to Stanfords before, you’ll discover one of the world’s best travel bookshops into the bargain.

Hope to see you there…

Reading the World – an evening with Ann Morgan, Tuesday 24th March, 6.30pm at Stanfords, 12-14 Long Acre, London WC2E 9LP. Tickets £3 (redeemable against the cost of Reading the World) available here


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 29,491 other followers