Turkmen book published in English

the-tale-of-aypi-72dpiI’m often contacted by fellow literary explorers keen to know if the unpublished books I read during my quest are now available so that they can read them too.

Sadly, I frequently have to answer no: the manuscript translations I read from the Comoros and São Tomé and Príncipe, for example, are still unpublished. And although I have heard from several publishers interested in bringing out an English-language version of the Mozambican classic Ualalapi, an anglophone text is yet to appear.

However, there has been some good news this summer when it comes to the book I read from Turkmenistan, the whimsical novel The Tale Aypi by exiled writer Ak Welsapar. This has found an English-language home with Slavic literature press Glagoslav Publications and is on sale now.

This means that Welsapar’s novel, the first book to be translated directly from Turkmen into English, is now accessible in the world’s most-published language. Great news for its author – who lost so much when his work was blacklisted in his home nation – and for curious readers everywhere.

As such, The Tale of Aypi joins The Golden Horse, my then-unpublished Panamanian read (now available on ebook), on the anglophone global bookshelf. Let’s hope we soon see many others follow suit.

The Tale of Aypi by Ak Welsapar, translated from the Turkmen by WM Coulson (Glagoslav Publications, 2016)

Book of the month: Saskia De Coster

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Moving house is a chance to reflect on many things. As I wrote in my post about packing up my year of reading the world bookshelf, my recent change of address led me to ponder this project and the many different people and ideas to which it introduced me anew.

I also found that it reintroduced me to a lot of other books – not least some of the many volumes on my to-read mountain. Since 2012, this has grown to a massive size. Barely a days goes by without someone contacting me or leaving a comment here suggesting another intriguing book.

Publishers are no exception. I often get emails from presses keen to send me copies of their latest releases in the hope that I might write about them on this blog. I’m always glad to hear about great books, but I’m also very honest with companies that contact me like this: because I only choose one book to feature each month, I am unlikely to review most of the books publishers send me. Indeed, I can count on one hand the number of review copies I have written about here.

Still, last month, as I was packing up, I happened upon an uncorrected proof sent to me by World Editions earlier this year. It was for the English-language version of Wij en ik (We and Me) by Belgian writer Saskia De Coster, translated from the Dutch by Nancy Forest-Flier.

The accompanying publicity material was impressive. This was, according to World Editions, ‘a brilliant, incisive novel’. Indeed, they went so far as to call it a European response to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.

If that weren’t curiosity-piquing enough, the cover of the proof bore a ringing endorsement from Dutch author Herman Koch, whose Summer House with Swimming Pool I read recently and enjoyed. And so, taking the book up from the stack on which it had languished for half a year, I put the packing on hold for a bit and began to read.

The novel follows the fortunes of the Vandersanden family, spanning more than three decades from 1980 until almost present-day. Living in a housing estate high up a mountain, megalomaniac Mieke, her taciturn husband Stefaan and their increasingly wilful and non-communicative daughter Sarah move through their days in isolation, caught in a web of silence that threatens to strangle them all. Through their stories and those of the community around them, De Coster paints a devastating picture of the modern-day nuclear family, revealing how loneliness can be threaded through the most intimate relationships of all.

The comparison of De Coster to Franzen is understandable, but somewhat limited. Although the two share an expansiveness to their writing and a willingness to devote pages to teasing out minutiae that most writers would baulk at for fear of readers’ ever-shrinking attention spans, the Belgian author’s prose has a quality all its own.

At her best she gets inside the heads of her characters to the extent that the whole world and the images used to portray it are coloured and slanted by their specific neuroses and concerns. When we look through the eyes of Mieke – whose days consist of an obsessional round of domestic chores – life explains itself by way of housework metaphors, whereas increasingly paranoid Stefaan sees reality in terms of political plots and intrigues.

There are some lovely instances of humour too. De Coster delights in bathos, frequently undercutting her creations’ pretensions or delusions with sharp one-liners that stay just the right side of bitter.

In time, however, this falls away and in the second half of the book the narrative takes flight, steering an exhilarating course between the peaks and valleys of the emotional landscape, revealing stunning vistas and terrifying cliffs.

This is not a perfect novel. There are some clunky word choices and overworked imagery. Observations such as the would-be bon mot that ‘rain in Belgium is like the great leader in a dictatorship: it pops up everywhere’ feel laboured and unnecessary.

At times the pacing jolts, jerking us abruptly from one scene to the next. And although the shifts of perspective from one character’s mind to the next often feel natural and fluid, there are points at which they bewilder.

The biggest issue concerns the mysterious ‘we’ of the title – a strange disembodied consciousness that creeps into the story at odd moments, commenting on the action in the manner of a Greek chorus. Although this occasionally adds a nice sense of mystery, it is not developed enough to merit its place and feels rather like scaffolding that may have helped in the construction of the narrative but would have been best taken down to show off the finished work.

These near misses are symptomatic of the risks writers must take to do exciting, new things, however. And there can be no doubt that, for all its imperfections, this is a bold and daring book. The epigraph from Virginia Woolf is a key to De Coster’s ambitions for her story: ‘To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face.’

For my money, she has achieved this. Uneven though it may be, We and Me contains startling truths about the way we live and die. To read this story is to be changed by it.

Thanks for sending me the proof, World Editions. I wonder what other delights are lurking in my mountains of unread books…

We and Me (Wij en ik) by Saskia De Coster, translated from the Dutch by Nancy Forest-Flier (World Editions, 2016)

By the way, it’s been great to see such a brilliant response to Postcards from my bookshelf – nearly 120 entries in the week since it went live. If you haven’t applied yet but would like to be in with a chance of receiving a book chosen by me next year, visit the post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read.

Postcards from my bookshelf (or A year of sending the world books)

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Exactly five years ago today, I did something eccentric. Sitting in my living room in south London, I decided to spend 2012 trying to read a book from every country in the world.

To this end, I registered the domain name ayearofreadingtheworld.com and posted a short appeal online asking the planet’s book lovers to suggest what I should read from different parts of the globe.

On that dank October day, I had no idea whether anyone would be interested. Yet within hours of my request going live, I had numerous comments and messages from people I’d never met offering all sorts of ideas. Just four days later, a stranger in Kuala Lumpur had volunteered to go to her local English-language bookshop to choose my Malaysian book and post it to me.

What followed was an extraordinary quest that challenged and remade me in ways I could never have imagined. It introduced me to writers and translators around the planet. It established friendships and professional connections I cherish to this day. It reshaped the way I read and write. And it taught me a huge amount about the extraordinary power stories have to connect us across geographical, political, social and religious divides. It also transformed me into a published author.

A year of reading the world changed my life. But it could never have done so without the generosity of the hundreds of book-loving strangers who went out of their way to do research, send me books, and even translate and write things specially for me from countries with no commercially available literature in English.

The project prompted the most extraordinary outpouring of altruism I have experienced.

And so, as the five-year anniversary of A year of reading the world rolls round, it seems only fitting to take a leaf out of those generous volunteers’ books and pay some of that kindness forward.

As such, this October 24, I have decided to spend next year doing another eccentric thing. Once a month throughout 2017, I will send a translated book to a stranger – a sort of postcard from my bookshelf.

You can apply to be one of the recipients by leaving a comment below. All you need to do is tell me a bit about you, the sort of things you like reading and why you want a book from me.

On the 15th day of each month I will choose one person to receive a book translated into English and use the information they have given me to select something I hope they will enjoy. I will post or courier this title to the recipient wherever they are in the world.

It would be great to hear from as many readers as possible, so please share this with anyone you think might be interested. As I discovered five years ago, the more people who get involved, the better reading the world can be.

Reading the world through libraries

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Last week I had the great honour of delivering the 26th Annual Mortenson Distinguished lecture at the University of Illinois in the US. The Mortenson Center was founded through the generosity of C. Walter and Gerda B. Mortenson, who believed that librarians sharing information is one of the shortest and surest roads to world peace.

Since 1991, the organisation has provided training to 1,300 librarians from more than 90 countries. It has also raised $2.5m-worth of grants to strengthen skills and modernize libraries. So you can imagine my delight at being asked to contribute to the final celebrations marking its first quarter-century.

The visit turned out to be much more than just a speaking engagement. Shortly after I landed at Urbana-Champaign, I found myself sitting with a group of librarians in a Chinese restaurant. They had been attending a workshop on global studies and were full of ideas

The next morning, following a jog round campus and a brief spell going over my notes, I was picked up by Rebecca from the centre and taken to the library in which the Mortenson Center is housed.

Although the no-gun signs on the doors felt forbidding, the library was anything but. I was delighted to see a large number of students enjoying the space in the subterranean building – built that way so as not to overshadow a historic experimental corn field, one of the first of its kind.

I particularly liked the board of questions posted up for graduate researchers to answer, featuring a query as to whether Jack and Rose would both have fitted on the floating door in the film Titanic. This, along with several others, was addressed in great detail.

There was no time to ascertain the answer, however, as Rebecca whisked me off to the Mortenson Center, a small but intriguing space filled with gifts brought by many of the librarians who have visited over the years. A string of prayer flags hung over the sofa area, while a cabinet by the door of director Clara M. Chu’s office boasted ranks of trinkets, dolls, ornaments and mementos.

After lunch, the first of my events was a Chai Wai (or public dialogue) with former Mortenson Center director and author Marianna Tax Choldin. Her latest book, Garden of Broken Statues: Exploring Censorship in Russia, is a compelling and moving account of her decades-long fascination with the Soviet Union and Russia, which she has visited more than 55 times over the course of her career. It considers the personal and social effects of censorship and reveals the importance of a concerted effort to understand the past.

Chaired by former American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom director Barbara M. Jones, the discussion proved lively and wide-ranging, as you can see from the video of it here. Though the audience was small, there was no shortage of questions and we covered everything from the intriguing Japanese film Library Wars: The Last Mission (definitely on my to-watch list) to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a classic to which both Tax Choldin and I refer in our books.

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Next came the investiture of the Mortenson Center’s third director and distinguished professor, Clara M. Chu, and a celebration reception. Then it was my turn (you can watch the video of the lecture if you’d like to see how it went – my presentation starts at about 17.53).

Saturday was my last day in Illinois and Clara Chu and I spent it visiting Springfield, home of Abraham Lincoln, often said to be the US’s greatest president. There, alongside a welter of insights into Lincoln’s rise from lawyer to world leader, his efforts to champion the abolition of slavery, the horror of the American civil war and the pity of the great man’s assassination, I learned an interesting fact: each president has his (or perhaps one day her) own library. For every American leader, there is a small army of people sorting, ordering and safeguarding the historically significant documents associated with their time in office so that others may learn from them.

Important though books are, my visit to Illinois reminded me, they are limited without the people who organise, promote and – all too often – have to fight attempts to keep others from reading them. Librarians are at the forefront of these efforts. And as books such as Ali Smith’s Public Library and Other Stories demonstrate, they have been essential in drawing out and shaping many an aspiring wordsmith.

This is one of the reasons why I’m also delighted to have got involved with another library-centred organisation recently. The Global Literature in Libraries Initiative aims to make more resources and techniques available to librarians to help them encourage readers to explore books from around the world.

Founded this year and already numbering 345 members, the project will run workshops, produce catalogues featuring excellent translated books and suggest tactics such as pairing unfamiliar works with popular titles to help readers venture further.

‘It’s about recognition,’ says translator and publisher Rachel Hildebrandt, who founded GLLI. ‘Very often librarians know what the patrons like. It’s sometimes enough to get someone to pick up a book that they might never pull off the shelf.’

Both the Mortenson Center and GLLI are funded by donations and would appreciate any help you can give (click the links to find out more). Hopefully, soon librarians everywhere will have the tools to help anyone who wants to to read the world.

Pictures courtesy of the Mortenson Center for International Library Progams.

Farewell to the shelf

 

A week ago, almost five years after I first asked book lovers to help me read the world, I packed up the bookshelf that stored all the paper volumes I accumulated during the project. It was still arranged almost exactly as it had been when I finished my quest on December 31, 2012.

Yet last Friday everything from the massive hardback photobiography of Grace Kelly that I read for Monaco to the printout of ‘To Forgive Is Divine Not Human’, the story that Julia Duany wrote and read for me to represent her nation South Sudan, went into boxes.

I was moving out of the little south London flat in which I read the world and where, huddled at my desk in the corner, watching bin men and delivery lorries come and go out of the window, I wrote two books: Reading the World (known as The World Between Two Covers in the US) and my first novel Beside Myself.

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Packing up is a strange thing. You encounter objects that you haven’t looked at or noticed properly for a long time.

Picking up each of those books and loading them into boxes – it took four and, as you can see from the pictures, James Joyce proved particularly problematic (plus ça change) – was a touching, joyful and meditative experience.

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Handling the volumes brought to mind many of the stories of what people did to help me in my quest. Ripples and Other Stories recalled for me the generosity of Rafidah in Kuala Lumpur, who chose and posted it to me from the other side of the world; the striking black cover of Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta made me think of the afternoon I spent discussing author Aglaja Veteranyi’s extraordinary life and tragic death with her former partner Jens Nielsen (a conversation recorded in Reading the World).

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I remembered the many generous people who sent me unpublished manuscripts and self-published works, as well as the team of volunteers who translated a short-story collection so that I would have a book to read from São Tomé & Principe.

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I also found other things. Buried in a stack of notebooks that had languished on top of the bookcase long before the AYORTW shelf took shape, I found scraps of a diary from early 2009.

It was not a happy time for me. Having given up my job with the ambition of earning my living purely from writing and editing, I was feeling lost and very doubtful of my ability to achieve my goal. In one entry, I wrote:

A feeling of real depression, uselessness, worthlessness and rubbishness. Have I been here before? I’m not sure to this extent. I feel a fraud. Always a fraud. What can I write? I’ve spent a year twiddling with ideas, churning out words, some of which are half-decent but none of which go anywhere. […] I need to get myself out of this, prove I can do it. […] Sit down at the computer and go on through. This is getting to life and death now. Honesty, that is the key. To write something honest and fearless. […] Sit down tomorrow, brainstorm and write. Not be afraid that the chain of words will break.

 

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At the time, I couldn’t have guessed that the chain of words that would ultimately pull me out of that funk would be written not by me, but by hundreds of strangers around the world.

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It’s taken a few days, but at last I am relatively well-established in the place that will be my home for the next few months. For the first time in my life, I have my own writing room.

The AYORTW books have their own temporary shelf too. It’s rather ramshackle and constructed mostly out of packing boxes, but it has managed to stand up for 24 hours. Arranged in a different order (just imagine the exciting conversations they must be having with their new neighbours), they are staring out at me now.

They will watch as I continue with my next project, another novel. If ever the writing process gets difficult, inspiration will be close at hand.

World bookshopper: #7 Diada de Sant Jordi, Barcelona (various locations)

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Last week, I had a stroke of luck. A friend had invited me for a weekend away in Barcelona and when I checked out the dates, I realised something very exciting: our visit would coincide with Diada de Sant Jordi, the festival day of Catalonia’s patron saint and one of the biggest book parties on the planet.

Dating back to the Middle Ages, the celebration originally centred around lovers giving each other roses, drawing on the legend of Sant Jordi and the dragon, from whose blood a rosebush is said to have sprung. Then, in the 1920s, a member of the literary community in Barcelona (can anyone tell me his or her name?) noticed that the death dates of Shakespeare and Cervantes also fell on April 23. Inspired by this coincidence, the wordsmith encouraged people also to exchange books on this day – an idea which rapidly caught on.

The rest, as they say, is history. These days, thanks to the hundreds of stalls set up in the streets each Diada de Sant Jordi, the festival accounts for as much as 8 per cent of the book sales that take place in the region every year. The extravaganza has been such a success that it even inspired UNESCO’s World Book and Copyright Day.

You can imagine my excitement at being in the midst of it. While my companions slept off the journey, I was up early and out exploring the streets.

Even at 8am, many parts of the city were buzzing. On Rambla de Catalunya – one of the major centres of the festival – two rows of stalls stretched at least a quarter of a mile, laden with roses and books.

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All the major booksellers and publishers in the city had a presence. Wandering through, I spotted impressive spreads from Altaïr, BCN Books and La Central, to name but a few, as well as numerous stands devoted to specialist areas – from cookbooks to crime.

The offerings were extensive, featuring huge numbers of works by local and international authors. Titles by the celebrated Catalan writer Jaume Cabré were much in evidence, but I also saw numerous Spanish and Catalan versions of a number of old favourites and familiar faces from further afield.

There was Pétronille by Amélie Nothomb and La perla by John Steinbeck; both La noia del tren and La chica del tren by Paula Hawkins, and Roald Dahl’s Charlie y la fábrica de chocolate. Bestselling Italian writer Umberto Eco’s Il nome della rosa appeared here as El nombre de la rosa, while Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk was reconfigured as H de halcón (the Catalan version, which renders the title F de falcó, has just come out). And on several stands there teetered stacks of translations of the works of Jo Nesbø and EL James – some of them easily high enough to kill a toddler should they happen to fall.

Perhaps the most surprising title I saw was a Spanish translation of London Mayor Boris Johnson’s biography of Winston Churchill. No book, it seemed was too niche for Sant Jordi.

By contrast, the small handful of second-hand English-language titles I discovered on one table, looked rather sad. Although I did find the presence of Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, his memoir of the time he spent observing bullfighting in Spain, rather fitting. (The selection of ‘Livros en alemán’ was rather better.)

In addition to the books, authors were out in force too – or were certainly scheduled to be, judging by the number of boards promising signings later in the day.

There was no doubt about it: literature was a major focus here. However, seasoned literature professionals were by no means the only ones plying their wares.

I spied a stand devoted to books of piano scores – including the soundtrack for Frozen – and another offering colouring books. There were significant numbers of political organisations peddling texts supporting Catalan independence. Some even had televisions broadcasting their messages into the street. There was a stand run by a youth organisation that looked very much like the scouts, and numerous stalls raising money for charities such as Oxfam, the Red Cross and Save the Children.

Manning and womanning many of the stalls – and sometimes dashing out into the thoroughfare to thrust roses and leaflets at passers-by – were various costumed figures. I lost count of the number of dragons I saw and there was a healthy showing of Sant Jordis and princesses too. Other folk had gone for a more minimalist approach, simply draping themselves in the Senyera (Catalonia’s flag).

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The roses were by no means all orthodox either. They came in a huge variety of shapes, sizes and materials. There were rose lollipops and pendants. There were key rings and desk tidies. By one crossroad, I spotted a woman selling some intricate, free-standing blooms sculpted out of metal. Nearby, another vendor was driving a hard bargain for flowers fashioned from tiny bits of coloured plastic melted together in the oven.

Overall, the experience was exhilarating (although I was pleased to have got there early and beat the crowds, which made browsing the stalls very difficult later in the day). I made my way back to our apartment in time for brunch, sporting a handful of bookmark roses and a very large grin.

Feliç Diada de Sant Jordi!

Twin audiobook giveaway results

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Many thanks to those who took the time to tell me about their favourite twin novels. As always happens when I ask readers for advice, there were some thought-provoking suggestions.

Familiar English-language titles, such as Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl, featured alongside several other world classics. I was particularly grateful to Barbara for recommending Erich Kästner’s Das doppelte Lottchen. I watched the 1961 The Parent Trap recently, but hadn’t appreciated that it was an adaptation of this German novel.

I was also pleased to see that Dutch novelist Tessa de Loo’s The Twins appeared among the tips. I came across it some years ago and can agree with Betsy that it is a very worthwhile read.

Several of the titles you suggested were unfamiliar to me. I was particularly intrigued by Hungarian author Ágota Kristóf’s The Notebook, which Sabina brought to my attention. From what I’ve read about it online, it sounds like a fabulous book – even if, as Gremrien warned, it is rather dark.

In the end, though, I could only pick two winners to receive an audiobook of my own twin novel, Beside Myself. After much deliberation, I plumped for two commenters who had not only suggested tempting titles that were new to me, but had also described them in intriguing ways that have already sent me scampering off to track them down. They are Lizsmithtrailingspouse, for her suggestion of Italian classic The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, and Gremrien, who suggested Anatoly Pristavkin’s The Inseparable Twins.

Congratulations to them and very many thanks to everyone else. Winners, I’ll be in touch.

Tell me about children’s books (and I might give you a free book)

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Since I started my quest to read the world, I’ve encountered all sorts of literary explorers. I’ve had messages from people doing their own round-the-world trips on different timescales and with contrasting criteria to mine. I know of bloggers engaged in sampling the literary offerings of particular regions or continents, or of all the nations playing in the world cup. And I’ve heard from people who are trying to find international books from particular genres. (I even got an email not so long ago from someone set on reading a horror novel from every state – a particularly dark quest, as he pointed out!)

Perhaps the most common inquiry I receive from prospective world readers, however, concerns children’s books. I’ve lost track of the number of parents and teachers who have written to me asking for advice on resources they can use to help youngsters read more widely. It’s great to know that so many children are surrounded by adults keen to help expand their imaginary universes in this way.

Although during my quest I only read two books aimed specifically at children (my choices for Dominica and for the Central African Republic) and one YA novel (Samoa), my literary adventures have brought me into contact with a number of great projects exploring children’s literature from around the world. In the UK, for example, the wonderful Outside In World organisation has done a lot to bring more great books onto British children’s radars. Meanwhile in New York, this list compiled by Marianna Vertsman at Mid-Manhattan Library is a great starting point. There are also some wonderful personal projects, such as the Read Around the World section on mother-of-three Amy’s Delightful Children’s Books blog.

In my reading this year, I was also enthralled by Helen Wang’s wonderful translation of Cao Wenxuan’s Bronze and Sunflower, a glorious children’s story set in rural China during the Cultural Revolution. I made it my April Book of the month and I’ve been very pleased to see that it’s been getting some much deserved attention in the UK Independent and Guardian newspapers this week.

But, as you’ve probably gathered from this project, I’m a great believer that you can never have enough book recommendations. So I thought I’d see what you’ve got to add to the discussion of children’s literature from beyond the English-speaking world. And because it’s the festive, gift-giving season in many parts of the planet and I’m feeling generous, I thought I’d offer you the chance of getting a signed copy of my book in return.

Simply leave a comment below giving the title and author of your favourite children’s book written in a language other than English, and up to four sentences about why you like it. Your recommended title can be available in translation or yet to be translated, and it can be a picture book or full of words. My main criteria are that you love it and that it’s good.

On January 1 at midday UK time, I will read through all the entries and choose my favourite, most persuasive book pitch. And that person will get a signed copy of the UK edition of my book, Reading the World (pictured above). I’ll even personalise the dedication and post it to you and everything. So go on, tell me what children’s stories we English-language readers are missing.

COMPETITION NOW CLOSED. CHECK BACK SOON FOR THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE WINNER

Book of the month: Bina Shah

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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).

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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)

A special message

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A rather lovely email arrived in this morning. The message was from Rafidah, the generous stranger who, four days after I first asked the planet’s booklovers to help me read the world, left a message offering to go to her local English-language bookshop in Kuala Lumpur and choose and post me my Malaysian book.

Rafidah’s kindness was a great inspiration for me at the start of this project and so, when Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer was published earlier this month, I emailed her to ask if I could send her a copy in return for the books she once sent me.

The photograph above shows my book and the card I enclosed in Rafidah’s apartment, where my parcel has just arrived. More than three years after her act of generosity kickstarted my quest, the book that it led to has found its way to her. I’m so pleased.