Person under a train


One of the great, unexpected things that has come out of my project to read a book from every country in 2012 is the fact that I’m often invited to go and tell people about it at various events around the UK and even abroad. There’s nothing nicer than sharing some of the great stories you helped me find and the extraordinary kindness of many readers and writers around the planet that I encountered that year – and still do to this day.

So when Graham asked me to come and give a talk yesterday evening at the Hilt in Chandler’s Ford, Hampshire, I was only too pleased to say yes. The plan was that I would get the train from London to Winchester, where Graham would pick me up.

Everything was going swimmingly until, about ten minutes before we were due to pull into my stop, the train slowed to a halt. The guard came on the Tannoy. There’d been an incident at Winchester, he said, and the station was closed. Instead of stopping there, the train would go back the way it had come and take another route. Next stop: Woking, then Southampton.

My heart was in my mouth. I thought of Graham waiting at the station and all the people who had bought tickets to hear me speak. How on earth was I going to make it on time?

Luckily, the woman sitting next to me knew the area well. The best thing for me to do was to stay on until Southampton as it wasn’t that far to drive there from Winchester. I’d be late, but I would at least make it, she said.

Over the next two hours, the woman and I chatted as the train crawled its way around southern England. Claire, I learned, was a film editor making a documentary about fashion and we talked openly about our work and families. At some point, we heard that the disruption at Winchester had resulted from a person jumping under a train, a sad discovery that made us reflect on some of the difficult situations facing people we knew in our own lives.

At last, 20 minutes after my talk was due to start, we pulled into Southampton Central. By this stage, poor Graham had been waiting for nearly an hour and had bought me several cups of peppermint tea and a veggie pizza, nearly all of which had gone cold.

We got to the Hilt and I gave my talk. Despite having to wait so long, the audience were warm and enthusiastic and I felt very welcome. As ever, the excitement and fellow-feeling that books have the power to generate was humbling.

Then it was back to the station. Things I’d seen online suggested that by this stage trains should be running from Winchester once more, but when I arrived on the platform, it turned out not to be the case. The information on the boards and the recorded messages just kept pushing departure times back and cancelling services, and there was no member of staff (erhem, South West Trains) to advise us.

At length, a man asked me if I was headed for London and what I thought about the idea of getting a group of people together and trying to share a taxi. It seemed better than spending the night staring at numbers on a screen, so we gave it a go and before we knew it we had six people and a taxi prepared to drive us the 70-odd miles or so to London for a reasonable price.

Feeling a bit like children embarking on a school trip – the taxi driver even made us stop at a petrol station to use the toilet and get snacks and drinks before we started – we set off. My fellow passengers, I discovered, included theatre director Daphna and set designer Jenny who had been at work on I Do, a play showing at Winchester’s Theatre Royal and coming back to the Almeida Theatre in London soon, and a young artistic guy working for an architecture firm called Tom.

Sitting up front as we bowled down the motorway, Tom and I had a great discussion about Amsterdam, where he lived for 18 months, and our various projects.

Finally, some way north of midnight and after the poor taxi driver’s sat nav had erroneously led us to the Ritz, we arrived at Waterloo, tired but strangely happy. Against all the odds, it had been a great journey. We had met new people and learned something about the awkward strangers we normally found ourselves sitting among on public transport.

If the person who died on the tracks that day needed proof that they were worth something and had the power to make a difference, it was there in that car. Sadly, however, they’ll never know.

Picture of a Banksy in Boston by Chris Devers

United Kingdom: coming home

Well, here we are. The 196th book (197th really, counting the Rest of the World choice) and the final post of the project that took over my life in 2012.

It’s been the most extraordinary year. We’ve seen a story specially written for the blog from South Sudan, a book translated by a team of volunteers to enable me to read something from Sao Tome and Principe, and been given a sneak preview of an illustrated, trilingual collection of microstories from Luxembourg, as well as many other wonderful discoveries.

I’ve been overwhelmed by the interest and support the blog has drawn around the world. From the huge number of people who have given up their time to help me track down those elusive titles and the many visitors who have liked, shared and commented on posts – keeping me going through all those late nights and early mornings – to the media interest that saw the blog featured on CNN International, in the national press and on UNESCO’s list of initiatives for World Book Day, the response has been humbling. Thank you.

I’m also delighted that the project will see another book added to the world – Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer, which I’m writing for UK publisher Harvill Secker and comes out in 2015.

But back to the matter in hand. As far as I could see, the only way to finish this odyssey was with a return to the place where it all started and where I first discovered my love of reading: the UK.

At first glance, it seemed obvious that I would choose one of the bastions of British literature as my final book – something by Dickens or Eliot, perhaps, or a more modern work by Woolf, Orwell, Wodehouse or Waugh.

However, as the year went on and I became less and less convinced by the idea of one book summing up a country’s literature, other thoughts started to creep in. In particular, I began to think more about translation.

After all, I started this project because I realised I hardly ever read world literature and never read books in translation. And yet here I was living in a country that was home to several native languages other than English, the literatures of which I had never explored.

With this in mind, I wandered up to the Welsh Books Council stand at the London Book Fair earlier this year and asked for some suggestions. (I might as easily have chosen to read Gaelic literature or something translated from the now-dead Cornish language, but Welsh has a particular significance for me, it being my grandfather’s mother tongue.)

The woman I spoke to was very helpful and had many recommendations. However, one in particular stood out: Martha, Jack and Shanco by Caryl Lewis. It won the Wales Book of the Year award in 2005 and the English translation came out two years later. Intrigued, I noted it down and set off to find a copy.

Set on the bleak farm of Graig-ddu in west Wales, the novel recounts a year in the lives of three ageing siblings who were born and grew up there. Caught up in the demanding day-to-day running of the farm, Martha, Jack and their mentally disabled brother Shanco have little time to dwell on what else the world might have to offer them. But every so often outside forces break into their isolation, testing the forces that bind them to the memory of their parents and the place that shaped, warped and made them who they are.

Lewis’s evocation of this harsh and remote world is powerful. From the first scene, in which we follow the siblings as they head out in the dead of night to discover the reason for the wounds on one of their cows’ udders, we are caught up in the grim realities of life on Graig-ddu. This is a place where kittens tumble to their deaths from roofbeams, crows beat their beaks bloody at the window panes, and rams’ horns must be reshaped to stop them from growing into the creatures’ heads.

In the face of such daily occurrences and the gruelling physical schedule (not helped by Jack’s adherence to his father’s antiquated farming equipment), there is no room for sentimentality. Instead, emotions must be expressed in private and through little things – Mami’s bedroom kept as it was when she died, the wreath laid annually on the parents’ grave, the upturned washing-up bowl shielding the footprint Gwynfor left the day Martha told him she could not leave the farm and marry him.

Lewis’s writing reflects this too, condensing poignancy and meaning into a series of fleeting, yet breathtakingly precise images. There is the description of Martha and Shanco lying awake at night ‘each skull a bird cage full of thoughts flapping in the hope of freedom’, the way Jack tries to make sense of his sister’s words ‘laying them out one by one like clothes put out to dry on the line’, and the portrayal of Martha’s ‘home’s landscape […] coated with a drift’ of interloper Judy’s things.

For all the bleakness of the setting however, there is humour and beauty too. Jack’s partnership with his sheepdog Roy is mesmerising, as is the depiction of the myriad stars in late summer ‘as though someone had cast them like quicksilver into the sky’. In addition, cameo characters like neighbouring farmer Will, who turns his cap round and continues on at the same speed when he wants his tractor to go faster, and Martha’s high jinks with the windpipes of the turkeys she butchers for Christmas add an endearing warmth to the narrative.

They also give it a sense of tradition and archaism that makes you forget that you are reading about contemporary Wales. Time and again, I found myself pulled up short by mentions of EU directives and 4×4s that reminded me that the story was set not in some long-distant decade and land, but a handful of years ago and only a few hundred miles from my London flat.

Now and then, Lewis labours her points. The repeated statements of the particulars of Mami’s will, which saw Graig-ddu entailed jointly on the siblings, for example, feel a little unnecessary. In addition, the careful fleshing out of most of the characters shows Judy up as rather two-dimensional in contrast. I also felt the steps leading to the climax of the novel could have been more subtly seeded into the narrative.

As a whole, though, this is a haunting and engrossing book. Lyrical, harsh and deeply moving, the novel reveals what it means to be born into a way life that leaves you no real room for imagining anything else. It is a reminder that you don’t have to look beyond the boundaries of your own nation to find people living in quite different worlds from your own.

Thanks again to everyone who has made this project possible and a special thank you to my fiancé Steve, who lived through it with me, took the picture at the top and came up with many of the best ideas along the way.

If you’d like to stay up to date with post-world developments, you can follow me on Twitter (@annmorgan30) or like the A Year of Reading the World Facebook page (by popular request I’ll be posting a shortlist of favourite commercially available world reads there in a few days’ time).

For now, though, I’m off to celebrate. Happy New Year everyone. Have fun!

Martha, Jack and Shanco (Martha Jac a Sianco) by Caryl Lewis, translated from the Welsh by Gwen Davies (Parthian, 2007)

Montenegro: home truths

Around the end  of May, I was mooching about on Twitter trying to drum up leads for some of the gaps on The List when @markbooks swooped in to recommend The Coming by Andrej Nikolaidis for the small South-eastern European country of Montenegro. @stujallen had just read it, he said.

I was in the process of thanking them when @MissCathO joined the party to say that, on the subject of Montenegrin literature, she was hoping to get an English translation of fiction by @ksenijapopovic shortly. Soon after that @ksenijapopovic popped up with the news that her novel was being proofread as we spoke and should be ready in ebook form in the next few weeks. I asked  her to keep me posted and she duly did, tweeting at me excitedly on 16 July to say that A Lullaby for No Man’s Wolf was now available on Amazon.

In the meantime, I’d done a bit of research on Ksenija Popovic (or Xenia Popovich as her name is rendered on the e-cover of the English version). It turns out she’s something of a Montenegrin literary star. Her first novel was a bestseller, won an award (the name of which I’ve been unable to find a satisfactory translation for) and was made into a film. She also did the translation of her latest book, the only one so far available in English, herself. Sorry though I was to have to bypass Andrej Nikolaidis, about whom I’d heard several good things, I was going to have to check this out.

A Lullaby for No Man’s Wolf unpicks the backstory of Klara, a classical pianist turned housewife, who at the age of 30 is already ‘old and tired’. Taking us back through her tough childhood in an orphanage, or ‘home for mistakes’, in an anonymous semi-American, semi-European town, the narrative explores the horrific events that led to the collapse of her relationship with her first love, Vuk, and her subsequent lonely marriage.

The wit and cynicism of Klara’s voice is one of the novel’s greatest strengths. ‘Born bitter, unwilling to indulge in childish deceptions’, she looks the calculating mechanisms of the children’s home, where wards of the state are ‘spared the pressure of attending high school’ by being sent to work in the neighbouring factory, full in the face. The early passage where Klara introduces us to the staff’s manipulative method of getting visitors to donate money pulls no punches:

‘The director’s impeccable system, which she liked to call her only child in a sea of other people’s children, triumphed whenever one of us pulled the lady by the sleeve and asked in a sweet voice, “Are you my mommy?”‘

The robustness of the storytelling means that the narrative is able to take the weight of the traumatic events that later crowd in upon it. While the gear change into graphic descriptions of abuse may be too abrupt and shocking for some readers’ tastes, Popovic’s fearlessness and frankness carry it through. Her insight into the way extreme experience warps the dynamics of human relationships is particularly impressive, and I found myself repeatedly typing ‘great’ and ‘wow’ into the notes on my Kindle as I read her account of the mental labyrinth Klara wanders through in the latter half of the novel.

The secret of the book’s success is that, unlike most authors writing about under 18s, Popovic is not an adult writing about children but a person writing about people. Her work is entirely free of that coyness writers usually seem to feel about children’s emotions, meaning that love, fear, anger, sexual attraction and hatred are every bit as raw, present, shocking and enthralling for her young characters as for adults, if not more so.

One or two strange words like ‘pianism’ and ‘snobbism’ have slipped through the translation net. These stick out, however, because the rest of the work flows so well – helped no doubt by the years Popovic spent in the US as a child. In fact, as the book goes on, you begin to wonder if they aren’t meant to be coinages by Klara, so atypical are they of the rest of the text.

But this is splitting hairs. As a whole, this is an outstanding piece of work: raw and fearless. If anyone needs proof of the value of authors being able to self-publish to ebook, it’s right here in this novel: the second self-published translation of a work published commercially in another language I’ve read this year. A fantastic achievement. More please.

A Lullaby for No Man’s Wolf by Xenia Popovich, translated from the Montenegrin by Xenia Popovich (Xenia Popovich, 2012)

Namibia: marital ties

I started reading this book while sitting in a television studio waiting to be interviewed about A Year of Reading the World by Isha Sesay for her NewsCenter show on CNN International. I was quite nervous and sitting at the newsreader’s desk with lots of cameras and screens with my face on them leering down at me wasn’t the most relaxing of places to be reading, so it’s a testament to the power of Neshani Andreas’s storytelling that The Purple Violet of Oshaantu managed to draw me in all the same.

Published in 2001 and already considered a classic, the novel follows Mee Ali and her friend Kauna as they struggle against the patriarchal structures of society in rural northern Namibia. When Kauna’s abusive and unfaithful husband Shange dies suddenly, the women feel the full force of the way society is weighted against them and it is left to Mee Ali to help her companion rise above the waves of prejudice, avarice and cruelty that threaten to wash her away.

Andreas excels at capturing the little details that tell us everything we need to know about a character’s emotional state. From the incongruous reactions that show mental turbulence, as when Kauna laughs hysterically in the wake of discovering her husband’s body, to the flashes of insight that strike through everyday conversations, shedding light on secrets and fears, the narrative is full of riches. I particularly liked Mee Ali’s description of Kauna’s in-laws’ responses to her sensible suggestion that they should wait for doctors to determine the cause of Shange’s death instead of jumping to conclusions: ‘They looked at me as if I had another head, that of a cow perhaps. Did I look foolish?’

These insights make Andreas’s portrayal of the injustice of women’s lot very powerful. Interspersing the narrative with accounts of the extreme suffering inflicted on wives in the community, such as the public breakdown of Mee Namutenya when her husband takes a second wife and Mee Sara’s persecution by witch doctors on the death of her husband, Andreas presents a controlled and compelling argument against the practices that have so long been justified as tradition. Perhaps the most memorable of these concerns Mee Ali’s indignant reaction to the way her own happy marriage to Michael is viewed by her community:

‘Now this. “Oh, he doesn’t beat you? You are lucky.” I am really tired of it all. Yes, Michael is a good man and I am grateful for that. I just don’t know what people want me to do. Kneel down at his feet and say, “Thank you, Michael, for marrying a low class”? I am not lucky. I simply do not deserve to be treated like a filthy animal.’

Yet although the village women police and persecute each other through gossip, there is nevertheless an underlying sense of community and mutual support that erupts to the surface now and then with joyous results. Chief among these moments is the time when Kauna screws up her courage to ask her neighbours to come and do okakungungu [join together to work on her land] so that she can get her field dug before the rains come. The subsequent scene when the women respond to her call is incredibly moving.

Occasionally the time shifts can be a little disorientating. In addition, the long chunks of dialogue sometimes make the narrative feel more like a play script than a novel.

As a whole though, this is a powerful and important work by a writer who deserves her place among Africa’s literary greats. It certainly helped to calm my nerves.

The Purple Violet of Oshaantu by Neshani Andreas (Heinemann, 2001)


So here we are: 98 books in and 98 books to go. Halfway round the world, exactly halfway through the year.

And what a journey it’s been so far. We’ve heard the North Korean government’s official line on fiction, sourced a manuscript of a classic novel unavailable in English from Mozambique and listened to a story written specially for the project from the world’s newest country South Sudan.

We’ve seen a Burundian novel published to ebook because of enthusiasm from blog readers, discovered the Andorran Dan Brown and had help from a Luxembourgish pop star to find a book from the world’s only grand duchy. We’ve even seen the world change slightly, with Palestine replacing Kosovo on the list.

The project’s been featured in two national newspapers, on UNESCO’s list of World Book Day initiatives and on countless other blogs around the globe, from Romania to South Korea.

None of this would have been possible without you. From the many people who’ve suggested books, helped with research and even gone to bookshops in far-flung places on my behalf, to the kind folk who comment on, like, tweet and share posts, making all the early mornings and late nights worthwhile, you have kept me going. Thank you.

But it’s not over yet. Not by a long chalk. And some of the biggest challenges lie ahead.

There are 25 countries that I have yet to find any books for. These are:

  • Brunei
  • Central African Republic
  • Comoros
  • Guinea Bissau
  • Honduras
  • Kiribati
  • Liechtenstein
  • Madagascar
  • Mauritania
  • Micronesia, Federated States of
  • Monaco
  • Mongolia
  • Myanmar
  • Niger
  • Palau
  • Panama
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Qatar
  • Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
  • San Marino
  • Sao Tome and Principe
  • Seychelles
  • Slovakia
  • Tuvalu
  • Vanuatu

There are also plenty of other countries on the list that could do with some more recommendations.

So I’m asking you – yes, you, sitting there reading this now – to help me again. Please tweet/share/email/discuss/create expressive dance routines about this project. Please look at the list and see if there are any countries you might be able to help find novels, short story collections or memoirs from.

Maybe you have friends or relatives there? Maybe someone you work with does? Or someone whose restaurant you eat in? Or that nice man you sit next to sometimes on the bus*? Perhaps you’re going on holiday there this summer or you found a blog by someone from there recently?

However you do it and however tenuous the connections seem, I’d love to hear about them. Let’s see what we can find between us.

*Please be sure before you engage him in conversation that he really is a nice man.

Uruguay: losing your head

There are some titles that reach off the shelves, grab you by the throat and all but frogmarch you to the check out (or in this case the virtual cash desk with the little man hiding somewhere around the back of the computer) to make you buy the book. Horacio Quiroga’s The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories was one of these: as soon as I stumbled across the work on one of Wikipedia’s lists of writers by nationality, I knew I was going to read it. The fact several visitors to this blog subsequently recommended it only made me more excited about what I might find inside.

As its name suggests, this collection of short stories – selected from across Quiroga’s oeuvre by translator Margaret Sayers Peden – focuses on the startling, violent moments in which lives are altered beyond recall. Death, cruelty and vicious coincidence stalk its characters, feeding off their weaknesses and rarely allowing anyone to escape scot-free. There is the Indian worker driven to plot his bloody revenge by the high-handed discipline of a captain in A Slap in the Face’ and the father who retreats into eerie hallucinations after his young son’s death in a shooting accident in ‘The Son’ – a real shiver-in-the-sunshine moment in the best of the Gothic tradition. Meanwhile, the mini-masterpiece that is the title story shows how years of disappointment, hard luck and neglect can be distilled into a single, horrific act.

Jean Franco and George D Schade make much of the disturbing events of the writer’s own life in their Foreword and Introduction (several of Quiroga’s closest relatives and friends died in violent accidents, his first wife committed suicide and he killed himself in 1937). While these traumas must have impacted heavily on Quiroga, there is a strangely panicky feeling about the critics’ repeated references to them, as though they are anxious contain, defuse and even explain away the savage power of the text. At times, their comments take on the apologetic tone of the relative outside the room of the manic-depressive, whispering that dear Quiroga is not quite well.

This is perhaps because many of the stories in the book exhibit a disturbing, almost anarchic, approach to reality and sanity that is even more troubling than the violence they portray. From weird parables such as the story of ‘Julian Darien’, in which a tiger transforms into a boy only to be tortured to death by the villagers when his mother dies, to the excellent The Pursued’ — which describes the narrator’s obsession with a mentally ill friend-of-a-friend that makes him desperate to get at ‘the madman behind the actor who was arguing with me’ — the stories never allow the reader to relax. Turn your back for a second and the landscape has shifted, the rules changed: Quiroga is a writer who must be watched at all times.

It doesn’t always work. Some of the reversals are too abrupt and, while many of the animal stories are compelling, the anthropomorphism occasionally falls flat on its face – ‘Anaconda’, for example, in which snakes set out to attack the research centre trying to find an antidote to their venom feels like a bridge too far. Similarly, Quiroga’s dipping between registers, which is often effective, can sometimes feel odd, as in the opening story ‘A Feather Pillow’, the ending of which reads more like a public health pamphlet than a denouement.

But these are minor quibbles. All in all, this is a masterful collection that lifts the lid on some of the deepest and darkest wells of human experience. It will linger with the reader long after it’s been put on the shelf. Highly recommended.

The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories by Horacio Quiroga, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004)

Botswana: mind over matter

Mention the words ‘Botswana’ and ‘books’ in the same sentence these days (at least in the UK), and you’re almost certainly talking about Alexander McCall Smith. His No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series has been a smash hit since it burst on to the scene in 1999.

Unfortunately, as I discovered with Mia Couto in Mozambique, the trouble with such run-away successes, no matter how well-deserved, is that they tend to eclipse all other work from or about a particular country in the UK literary market. Their authors become the go-to wordsmiths for writing about a particular place and we forget that there might be other quite different texts out there.

This is bad for contemporary writing as it makes publishers less keen to scout for works to bring into the UK, but it takes its toll on classic literature too. There are some literary giants that we simply don’t hear about. For me Botswanan novelist Bessie Head was such a one.

Partly autobiographical, Head’s 1974 novel A Question of Power, tells the story of a mixed-race South African woman, Elizabeth, who comes to Botswana with her young son to make a new life. Desperate to shake off the abuse she witnessed and suffered in her homeland, ‘a country where people were not people at all’, she looks forward to a simpler existence filled with community life and working the land. It’s not long, however, before Elizabeth’s demons catch up with her and she is forced to confront the fact that much of the misery and sickness she grew up with has taken up residence in her own mind.

The book is one of the most powerful and vivid depictions of mental illness going. Dramatised through two characters, Dan and Sello, who come to visit Elizabeth at night, the narrative takes us through the rugged country of psychological dysfunction, charting its crushing lows and dizzying highs.

Head finds an impressive range of tangible metaphors to capture both ‘the grandeur of this view of life’ and the ‘sensation of living right inside a stinking toilet’ that accompany psychosis. So we hear how ‘a wide corridor opened up in [Elizabeth’s] mind’ and how at one point Sello appears to be ‘sitting at a switchboard plugging in the lines to all the beautiful people’, in addition to the visions of extreme violence and sexual cruelty that turn Elizabeth’s life into a waking nightmare.

Interspersed with these powerful periods of insanity are a series of interactions with the local community in which Head’s powers of observation and sense of the ridiculous combine to create a series of memorable cameo characters who all point to larger truths about the world. Chief among these is the ‘half-mad Camilla woman’, a Dutch volunteer at the community garden project Elizabeth joins who, in love with her own beneficence, is unable to look past her prejudices to meet people on their own terms. ‘Elizabeth’s nativeness form[s] the background to all her comments’ and when she comes to pronounce on Dutch literature, her true colours are revealed:

‘ “In our country culture has become so complex, this complexity is reflected in our literature. It takes a certain level of education to understand our novelists. The ordinary man cannot understand them…”


‘And she reeled off a list of authors, smilingly smug. It never occurred to her that those authors had ceased to be of any value whatsoever to their society.’

While excelling at tracing the steps by which psychotic episodes blow up and play out – the description of Elizabeth’s initial meltdown in the local radio shop, for example, is outstanding – Head makes a point of keeping the line between the real and the illusory blurred. This forces the reader to partake of Elizabeth’s bewilderment and share her conviction for much of the book than many of the things she sees are real.

This can give rise to flashes of frustration, but most readers will quickly come to trust Head’s obvious skill and give themselves over to her narrative. By the end, there can be no doubt of Head’s immense giftedness and her deserving of every bit as much recognition as other more widely read texts. An outstanding book.

A Question of Power by Bessie Head (Heinemann Publishers, 1974)

United States: supersize gods

When you’re trying to get through 196 books in a year, size matters. If a book’s more than 300 pages, it’s a challenge. If it’s more than 400, it’s pushing it. And anything over 500 pages is just having a laugh.

Weighing in at 672 pages, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods nearly disqualified itself on girth alone — particularly when I discovered that the 10th anniversary edition featured an extra 12,000 words not published before. To my page-swamped mind, this was bordering on rude.

There was another objection too: despite having lived in the United States for 20 years, having children there and being married to an American, British-born Gaiman is not a US citizen and has said that he has no intention of taking citizenship. Would this book by a perpetual outsider really count as US literature?

But Carol, who recommended the novel, was very insistent and so, kissing my weekend goodbye —  and dodging the glares from Roth, Steinbeck, Oates, Hemingway, Chabon and the host of other American greats up on my bookshelf —  I holed myself up and began to read.

Bold, baggy and mind-boggling, the novel traces the fate of the gods brought to the land of the free by immigrants, right from the arrival of the earliest prehistoric visitors to the refugees and fortune-hunters of the present day. The story is told through the eyes of Shadow, who gets out of prison to find that his wife and employer have been killed in a car crash, taking with them his hopes of a normal life. With nothing to lose except his new-found freedom, Shadow goes to work for the mysterious Mr Wednesday, who seems to know an uncanny amount about his life.

Wednesday’s omniscience is no accident. As head of the collective of traditional gods who are finding themselves sidelined for the ‘gods of credit card and freeway, of internet and telephone’, he is rallying his troops for a battle between deities old and new. But as the storm approaches and breaks, it seems that the gods themselves may be labouring under false beliefs.

Gaiman’s writing is refreshingly approachable. At times echoing the stripped-back voices of Hemingway and Steinbeck, the narrative manages to carry humour and philosophical reflections equally lightly, blending fantasy, mythology and a quirky, humane perspective that is all Gaiman’s own. This is helped by some surprising imagery — the description of driving into Chicago, for example, so that the city ‘happened slowly like a migraine’, and the presentation of the hinterworld ‘behind the scenes’ are particularly memorable.

Gaiman also has the knack of making us care quickly. The narrative veers off repeatedly into stories of some of the many travellers who came to America to make a life and, for the most part, these are compelling in their own rights, as well as giving the philosophical and mythological arguments in the book a human face.

This gives rise to some great reflections on what it means to be a nation of immigrants. ‘Nobody’s American. Not originally. That’s my point,’ says Wednesday at one stage, articulating sentiments that resonated particularly strongly for me as a Londoner proud of having grown up in a city that is home to people from nearly every nation of the world. Given the definition of US nationhood Gaiman posits in his novel, he, as an ex-pat Brit, fits right in.

By rights, I should be angry with this book. It kept me up at night, it made me late for trains and towards the end it made my eyes go a bit fuzzy. If this book were someone I knew, I’d definitely be thinking about unfriending it on Facebook. But as a book, it’s an impressive achievement that leaves readers very little room for doubt of its power or the pleasure of spending time in its company. Several novels further into my quest to read the world, Gaiman’s characters still people my daydreams. Thanks Carol for introducing us.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Publisher (Kindle edition): Review (2011)

Bangladesh: the point of book prizes

With the announcement of the Orange prize longlist this week, the usual round of questions and criticisms began. Shouldn’t the list be more international? Why is there so much historical fiction on it? How come Penelope Lively missed out? And who on earth thought Emma Donoghue deserved to feature for a novel first published in 2008?

It can all make you rather tired. In fact, until recently I didn’t pay much attention to book award lists, regarding them as little more than a marketing ploy to shift books by a lucky cohort of writers that seemed to change very little from year to year.

Then I took the plunge into my project to read one book from every country in the world in 2012 and all that changed. As I struck out from the familiar shallows of British, American and postcolonial literature, I found that book prize lists gleamed like guiding beacons on a vast and sometimes turbulent ocean. Often they were my only way of telling whether something was likely to be any good.

So when Fay, who is shadow judging the Man Asian Literary Prize on her blog, stopped by to share her thoughts on some of the contenders, I was grateful to be able to add Tahmima Anam’s longlisted The Good Muslim to my Bangladeshi options.

Jumping back and forth between the early seventies, early eighties and, once, the nineties, the novel explores the fallout of the Bangladesh Liberation War, which saw the country split from Pakistan in 1972. Told mostly through the eyes of Maya Haque, a woman doctor who returns to the home of her mother, deeply religious brother and his neglected son after an absence of seven years, it reveals the different ways that people cope with trauma and the harm that silence or incomplete communication between those with close ties can do.

Anam writes eloquently about the predicament of the intelligent, professional woman in a society where meekness, marriage and motherhood are the order of the day. As in several of the other books I’ve read so far this year, modern medicine provides the frontier for the meeting of traditional and western values as reticent characters find themselves forced to turn to Maya in cases of extreme need. 

The writing works best where it traces the friction generated as these two worlds collide. Anam has a particular talent for showing how memories and emotions intrude into seemingly unconnected practicalities, providing a motive for actions that would otherwise seem inexplicable.

Some of the peripheral characters are a little awkwardly drawn and there occasionally seems to be a step or two missing in the emotional transitions. The scene where Maya takes her nephew to buy shoes and storms out of the shop in a huff, for example, left me feeling slightly nonplussed.

Nevertheless, this is an assured and compelling tale that deserves a wide audience — and one which I would never have found without the Man Asian Literary Prize (shadow) jury’s help. It is proof of the need for prize organisers to take care that their lists truly reflect the best eligible work, wherever it comes from.

The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam (Canongate Books, 2011)

Côte d’Ivoire: if you are easily offended, keep reading

Apparently, there are people who take books back to bookshops. When I was studying for my Creative Writing MA, a visiting publisher told us that after Vernon God Little won the 2003 Booker Prize there was a rash of returns up and down the country in protest at DBC Pierre’s expletives.

No doubt if Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah is not Obliged had enjoyed a similar prominence when it was published in the UK, a similar thing would have happened. Riddled with obscenities and swear words in both Malinké and English (French in the original), many of which are hurled directly at the reader, this story of life as a ‘small-soldier’ in West Africa packs a vicious punch, not least because it is narrated by Birahima, a 10-year-old boy.

Most squirm-inducing of all are Birahima’s repeated descriptions of himself and his community as ‘Black Nigger African Natives’. Seeing this most incendiary of words exploding again and again on the opening pages, I was reminded of what my Togolese author, Tété-Michel Kpomassie, wrote about his first encounter with the term:

‘It was the first time I’d ever been called that, though I’d long ago realized that when someone having a dispute with a black man calls him “rotten nigger” or “filthy nigger” or some such name, it’s always some embittered neurotic trying to work off frustrations that have nothing at all to do with the “nigger”.’

Kpomassie’s observations hold true here. In fact, as the narrative progresses and Birahima unfolds his gut-wrenching story of running away from life with his abused and disabled mother only to be co-opted into one guerrilla group after another in Liberia and Sierra Leone, witnessing torture, massacres, rape and butchery along the way, the reasons for his aggressiveness become clear. His linguistic assaults are as much about a war with himself as they are about a war with the world, and reveal his struggle to assimilate all he has seen, thought and felt.

The shock factor is only one side of it. Pithy and waffle-free, Birahima delivers a refreshingly concise and even wry account of West Africa’s recent political history with some piquant insights along the way: ‘The woman is always wrong. That’s what they call women’s rights’; ‘Refugees had it easier than everyone else in the country because everyone was always giving them food’. He even reveals the unacknowledged glamour that the life of the small-soldier seen from the outside may have for many deprived children, for whom a taste of power, respect and good food contrasts favourably with the destitution and helplessness of everyday existence.

The voice can get a little wearing now and then. In particular, the repeated bracketed definitions from the Larousse and Petit Robert dictionaries, which, Birahima explains at the beginning, he is using ‘to make sure I tell you the life story of my fucked-up life in proper French’ feel like a bit of a missed opportunity. While Kourouma does work the odd observation out of them now and then with Birahima’s alternative definitions of ‘torture’ — ‘corporal punishment enforced by justice’ — and ‘humanitarian peacekeeping’, there are too many straight definitions for this device to pay its way.

Nevertheless, the book is a startling and fresh insight into a situation most of us can thankfully only guess at, as well as a masterclass in characterisation. It deserves to be read widely. Outraged readers should be bombarding the returns desks in their droves.

However if the second-hand copy I bought through Amazon is anything to go by, that is unlikely to happen. Inside the front cover there is a ‘withdrawn’ stamp from the Bournemouth Library Service; since the library bought the book in 2007, not enough people have read it to justify keeping it on the shelves. Now that is something worth getting angry about.

Allah is not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma (translated from the French by Frank Wynne). Vintage (2007)