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Tag: literary fiction

Booker Longlist Review: My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

I am reading the longlist in the following order: first, the books I have in hand, from shortest to longest. I read Lanny a few weeks ago, and by coincidence it is one of the shortest. When the list was announced I went to my library Overdrive site and snagged four of the entries available in the US. I started with My Sister the Serial Killer and finished it in an evening, since it’s short and eminently readable.

As I said in my earlier post, I’ve been avoiding this book for months. I kept seeing it in bookstores and it’s a lovely hardcover edition, small and compact with great paper and font. But I balked at paying hardcover book prices for a novella that sounded like a genre book marketed as lit fic. Then it won the Tournament of Books in the spring, and the readers who loved it really loved it. I checked it out of the library but returned it without opening it. Then it made the Women’s Prize longlist, and once again, some readers really loved it. This prize mixes the readable with the more experimental, and MStSK clearly fell on the readable side. I passed again.

But once it was on the longlist, I caved. I started reading before dinner (the longlist was announced at 4pm my time) and finished before 11pm. It was terrific! I was so wrong about this book. It is most definitely about a sister who is a serial killer, but it’s about a lot more: sibling relationships, family relationships, gender in a patriarchal society, the burdens of externally and self-imposed responsibilities, all layered into a deceptively small and light package. And the voice is fantastic.

It’s a debut novel, albeit a very accomplished one, and perhaps because of that none of the “twists” (if that’s what the author meant them to be) were a surprise. But they all fit the plot and the theme. I could see them all coming and I nodded my head at them because it made so much sense that things turned out as they did. Both the sisters are portrayed in nuanced, complex ways, and their relationship was beautifully done. I don’t have siblings, but I’ve observed TheH’s sibling relationships, and my cousins, who are mostly women, have equally complicated and fascinating relationships (without the serial killing, obviously). Everything about Korede’s attitudes toward Ayoola rang true, and Ayoola was equal parts infuriating and charismatic. Their bond came so alive on the page.

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The Booker 2019 Longlist

This year’s Booker Prize longlist was announced today. I recognized every book on the list, which is a first for me. Booker completists are going to find it difficult to read every book if they’re not tied into the publishing industry (at a minimum through Netgalley) and even then, I doubt anyone that isn’t Very Important to Promotion is getting the Atwood before its very prominent launch in September. The list of 13, from a total of 151 submitted or called in:

  • Margaret Atwood (Canada), The Testaments (Vintage, Chatto & Windus)
  • Kevin Barry (Ireland), Night Boat to Tangier (Canongate Books)
  • Oyinkan Braithwaite (UK/Nigeria), My Sister, The Serial Killer (Atlantic Books)
  • Lucy Ellmann (USA/UK), Ducks, Newburyport (Galley Beggar Press)
  • Bernardine Evaristo (UK), Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton)
  • John Lanchester (UK), The Wall (Faber & Faber)
  • Deborah Levy (UK), The Man Who Saw Everything (Hamish Hamilton)
  • Valeria Luiselli (Mexico/Italy), Lost Children Archive (4th Estate)
  • Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria), An Orchestra of Minorities (Little Brown)
  • Max Porter (UK), Lanny (Faber & Faber)
  • Salman Rushdie (UK/India), Quichotte (Jonathan Cape)
  • Elif Shafak (UK/Turkey), 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World (Viking)
  • Jeanette Winterson (UK), Frankissstein (Jonathan Cape)

Of the thirteen, ten have already been published in the UK and the other three will be released between 29 August and 9 September (the Levy, Rushdie, and Atwood respectively). If you’re in the US and don’t want to pay import prices and/or wait for Book Depository/Blackwell to send you the print copies, I’ve found seven available either in ebook or hardback form.

I have five books in hand and have read a sixth (Lanny, reviewed here). The other four UK-published books are all available via KoboUK, so I’ll work my way through the five I have and then pick up the others as I go along. As in previous years, I’ll post my thoughts about the books here.

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Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi

I bought this when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize but didn’t get around to reading it right away. And then it won! So I put it on my 20 Books of Summer reading list. A novel originally written in Arabic by a woman author from Oman, it features multiple female characters and tells the story of social change in a little-understood region of the world. All this ticks a lot of my boxes, and the professional and GR reviews were very respectful, if a little mixed.

I’m glad I read this novel, and I’m still thinking about it, but I can’t say it was a fully satisfying experience. The theme is the social change of the country and the people through the 20thC, with an emphasis on three generations of women in an extended family and kin network. The reviews tend to single out three sisters in one generation (and they appear to be on the cover), but their mothers, grandmothers, daughter, and servants (formerly slaves) play equally important roles. We also read about the lives of the men in this community, most notably Abdallah, who is the father of the sisters and who gets the most POV pages.

The women’s stories focus on feelings and events surrounding marriage, childbirth, and their relationships with their parents, spouses and children. Even London, the daughter/granddaughter who is the youngest of the group and who becomes a doctor, spends more on-page time agonizing over her love interest and potential husband than anything else. Some of the writing about weddings and childbirths is very compelling. There is a description of the bridal and wedding process for one sister that gave me flashbacks, and there is a startling and effective childbirth scene. We spend a fair amount of time with Mayya after she has given birth and gone back to her family home for her post-partum rituals. If you aren’t familiar with extended family and kin networks in religious societies, you’ll learn a lot and even if you are familiar the characters’ stories will draw you in.

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Mini-reviews of recent reads

I just finished two very different translated novels, one a literary novel by a highly acclaimed Chinese writer in exile, the other a police procedural by a bestselling Japanese author of mysteries. I needed the latter to give my brain a rest after the former. I also finished a highly praised novel that didn’t work at all for me. I felt as if I’d read a different book than everyone else.

China Dream by Ma Jian

Ma Jian has been writing novels and nonfiction about Chinese society since the 1980s, and his critical views have led to his books being banned in China and his life in exile in the UK. The title of this book is taken from a speech by the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, who used the term to herald an era of “national rejuvenation” which would lead to China becoming the world’s greatest superpower. Ma Jian explores the costs that this dream imposes on ordinary Chinese people, especially those who are left behind.

Ma Daode is a government official in a regional city who seeks to create a China Dream Device, which will be implanted in all citizens and replace their individual dreams with a collective one of Chinese hegemony. His daily life, however, involves carrying out government policies like the demolition of villages to make way for economic development. Ma Daode is an extreme parody of a corrupt official, one with so many mistresses he can barely keep track of them, who takes bribes from all comers, and who ignores the welfare of the people affected by his actions.

But Ma Daode, who was a young man at the time of the Cultural Revolution, is increasingly bedeviled by nightmares of the violence and destruction of that time, in which he was both victim and perpetrator. As the story progresses, the past and the present become fused together for him, and no amount of sex and alcohol can suppress his torment.

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Spring by Ali Smith

The previous novels in Ali Smith’s seasonal quarter have been highlights of my reading years, so I eagerly looked forward to this third installment. And it started off well: in the first part the reader is introduced to Richard Lease, a 60-something director of TV films who is mourning the death of his longtime scriptwriter, onetime lover, and all-around mentor and conscience, Paddy. He especially misses Paddy now because he is under contract to direct a film about a chance meeting between Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke, in Switzerland in 1922. Paddy gives him as much help on Mansfield and Rilke as she can before her death, but the script being written by the youngish and oh-so-hip Terp is an unmitigated disaster; departures from the historical record are the least of its problems.

Richard abandons his work responsibilities and heads way north to the Highlands of Scotland, where he serendipitously meets up with a young girl, Florence, and her companion, Brittany (Brit), who are also up from the south of England. Brit works at a refugee detainment center and Flora is somehow connected to the center and to other refugees, but she’s basically on her own. Their reasons for traveling north are revealed in the second part of the novel.

Richard resembles other Smith characters in being white, educated, affluent, and in distress over choices he has and hasn’t made in his life. His interactions with Paddy are a delight to read (I wanted Paddy to stick around for the whole novel but that was clearly not going to happen). Their dialogue sparkles and even when Paddy is reciting set pieces, they’re Ali Smith set pieces so they’re excellent.

Like Autumn and Winter, Spring explores the political and cultural environment of the current moment through art, artists, and politics. This story ramps up the role of political bureaucracy with a vengeance, as the annoying but manageable institutions like the passport office are replaced by a prison-equivalent refugee detention centre, run by the previously mysterious agency SA4A. We see the centre through Brit’s eyes; she acknowledges the misery and injustice inherent in its operation, but she accepts it as the job she has.

The debates over Brexit and family squabbles that animated Winter are absent here, though; while Brit is part of the institutional structure, her perspective is that of a coopted observer rather than an active ideologue. This is interesting to me because it seems to let her off the hook a bit. Yes, she accompanies Flora to Scotland, but she’s not about to help her out of her precarious situation. She’s a company person to her core.

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