Lucy Popescu

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Theatre review – They Drink it in the Congo

Posted by lucypopescu on August 27, 2016

Congo (2)
Adam Brace’s epic play explores the legacy of colonialism, corruption and civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Brace tackles several issues, including the exploitation of the country’s rich mineral resources by multinationals – not least the mining of coltan for the electronics industry; the current conflict and sexual violence in the East; the factional party politics that continue to plague the nation and agitate the Congolese diaspora; and white, postcolonial guilt. It is no mean feat that he succeeds in moulding these various strands into a cohesive and satisfying whole.


Stef (Fiona Button) is the white coordinator of a London-based arts festival aimed at raising the profile of the Congolese people. She persuades former boyfriend, Tony (Richard Goulding), a PR guru, to help her engage the Congolese community and secure enough funding to ensure the event can go ahead. But the community is divided, the charities and NGOs have their own agendas, and not everyone wants to support a festival run by white people. We learn that Kenyan-born Stef has personal reasons for wanting it to go ahead.

Brace skilfully blends humour and horror, and Michael Longhurst’s well-paced production is full of surprises. In one brilliant juxtaposition, Jon Bausor’s boardroom set collapses to reveal a bottomless pit representing the mines that continue to be viciously fought over.

The ensemble cast is terrific. Sule Rimi deserves a special mention as the ghostly figure Oudry, and Joan Iyiola’s decision to perform various roles, despite suffering from a dislocated shoulder, is some measure of the actor’s commitment to this extraordinary play.

Almeida Theatre

020 7359 4404

Originally published in Camden Review

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Book Review – Signs Preceding the End of the World & The Transmigration of Bodies

Posted by lucypopescu on August 27, 2016

Signs Preceding the End of the WorldTwo superb novellas by Mexican Yuri Herrera, translated by Lisa Dillman and published by the pioneering indie publisher And Other Stories, herald a major new talent.

Herrera writes about the underbelly of Mexico today: violence, poverty, corruption and impunity. In extraordinary prose he creates stark landscapes and surreal scenarios which remain with you long after the final pages.

Signs Preceding the End of the World opens boldly with a giant sink hole threatening to envelop Herrera’s feisty female protagonist: “I’m dead, Makina said to herself, and hardly had she said it than her whole body began to contest that verdict and she flailed her feet frantically backward, each step mere inches from the sinkhole, until the precipice settled into a perfect circle and Makina was saved.” Makina is instructed by her mother to go to the United States to bring her brother home. She has to enlist the help of various local gangsters in order to ensure safe passage. In return she has to take a package across the border for the reptilian Mr. Aitch, the type of person “who couldn’t see a mule without wanting a ride”.

There is an epic quality to Herrera’s tale. Herrera has said that Signs is partly inspired by pre-Hispanic myth where the afterlife consists of nine levels which have to be traversed by those souls not chosen by the gods; their destiny is decided by the manner of their death. For English readers not familiar with these legends, Makina’s perilous voyage across the Rio Grande in “an enormous inner tube” is more likely to recall Greek mythology — a journey across the River Styx with Makina’s indestructible trafficker, Chucho, reminiscent of the ferryman Charon.

As soon as Makina enters the US she crosses over into an underworld inhabited by illegal Mexicans, many of whom have given up their identities and everything they love and hold familiar. They may never see their families again. It is the end of the world as they know it and, Herrera suggests, a limbo between death and rebirth. There is a memorable passage when Makina is picked up by an American cop and utlilising her knowledge of anglo, she challenges his inherent racism, inhumanity and the demonisation of Latinos:

“We are to blame for this destruction, we who don’t speak your tongue and don’t know how to keep quiet either. We who didn’t come by boat, who dirty up your doorsteps with our dust, who break your barbed wire. We who came to take your jobs, who dream of wiping your shit, who long to work all hours. We who fill your shiny clean streets with the smell of food, who brought you violence you’d never known, who deliver your dope, who deserve to be chained by neck and feet. We who are happy to die for you, what else could we do? We, the ones who are waiting for who knows what. We, the dark, the short, the greasy, the shifty, the fat, the anemic. We the barbarians.”

The Transmigration of BodiesThe Transmigration of Bodies is a more direct critique of the violence of the drug wars that plague Mexico today. It’s set in an unnamed city where residents lives in fear of a deathly disease carried by Egyptian mosquitos. I was immediately reminded of when the H1N1 virus (also known as ‘swine flu’) hit Mexico. The government imposed a five-day shut down and Mexico’s capital became a ghost town. There was virtually no traffic, few people on the streets and many shops were closed. Those brave enough to venture outside their homes wore surgical masks. It was utterly surreal but you had to be there to believe it (I was). This is the apocalyptic world Herrera evokes in his opening pages:

“Buzzing: then a dense block of mosquitoes tethering themselves to a puddle of water as tho attempting to lift it. There was no one, nothing, not a single voice, not one sound on an avenue that by that time should have been rammed with cars. Then he looked closer: the puddle began at the foot of the tree, like someone had leaned up against it to vomit. And what the mosquitoes were sucking up wasn’t water but blood. And there was no wind. Afternoons it blew like a bitch so there should’ve at least been a light breeze, yet all he got was stagnation. Solid lethargy. Things felt much more present when they looked so abandoned.”

Things are not always as they first appear in Herrera’s novels. It is as though true horror cannot be contemplated until it is experienced. A similar moment occurs inSigns when Makina reaches the US desert:

“Off in the distance she glimpsed a tree and beneath the tree a pregnant woman. She saw her belly before her legs or her face or her hair and saw she was resting there in the shade of the tree. And she thought, if that was any sort of omen it was a good one: a country where a woman with child walking through the desert just lies right down to let her baby grow, unconcerned about anything else. But as they approached she discerned the features of this person, who was no woman, nor was that belly full with child: it was some poor wretch swollen with putrefaction, his eyes and tongue pecked out by buzzards.”

The precariousness of life, its lack of value, are recurrent themes in both novellas. In The Transmigration of Bodies feuding gangsters continue to operate despite the fear of deadly infection. Herrera’s opening chapter introduces us to a young man, hung over, and desperate to seduce his neighbour ‘Three Times Blond’. We learn his name is ‘The Redeemer’ and that he is a fixer of sorts who mediates between rival families in order to avert unnecessary bloodshed. The Castros and the Fonsecas are each in possession of a dead body belonging to the other family. The Redeemer and his cohorts, a bodyguard known as ‘The Neeyanderthal’ and a local nurse, Vicky (who has to ascertain the cause of death), are employed to help facilitate the exchange of corpses.

Herrera combines lyricism with wry, black humour and employs a range of registers, colloquialisms and neologisms. In Dillman’s Translator’s Note in Signs she explains how she had to find an alternative for the neologism, jarchas, from the Arabic kharja, meaning both ‘exit’, and the word for an ‘end couplet’ in Mozarabic poems. She final decided on ‘to verse’ as her neological substitute for ‘to leave’. Her reasons are illuminating: “[it’s] a noun turned verb, a term clearly referring to poetry and part of several verbs involving motion and communication (traverse, reverse, converse) as well as the “end” of the uni-verse.”

Herrera writes about liminal spaces, so it is fitting that the bridge between language and culture, the very art of translation, is foregrounded in his novels. In his brilliant, multi-layered narratives he captures some of the conflicting forces shaping (and distorting) Mexico today and the impact of violence and xenophobia on ordinary people’s lives.

Originally published in

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Book Review – Beauty is a Wound & Man Tiger

Posted by lucypopescu on August 5, 2016

Beauty is a WoundSet in the fictitious Indonesian port of Halimunda, Eka Kurniawan’s ambitious, multi-layered novel Beauty is a Wound chronicles the life of Dewi Ayu, the mixed-race granddaughter of Dutch plantation owners, and her four daughters. It opens boldly in 1997, with Dewi Ayu rising from her grave, “after being dead for twenty-one years”, and then leaps back and forth in time introducing us to an array of characters.

The story covers almost a century, from the final years of Dutch colonialism to the fall of President Suharto, and includes the Japanese occupation, the postwar revolution, the acts of genocide against Indonesia’s Communist party and Suharto’s brutal dictatorship. Beauty is a Wound is the acclaimed Indonesian writer’s debut novel, published in his own country in 2002, and now published in English.

On returning to the land of the living, Dewi Ayu immediately thinks of her fourth daughter, born just 12 days before her death. She had been a particularly ugly baby and Dewi Ayu had gleefully named her Beauty. Setting the tone of the novel, Dewi Ayu declares: “There’s no curse more terrible than to give birth to a pretty female in a world of men as nasty as dogs in heat.”

We are then taken back to Dewi Ayu’s childhood and precocious teenage years. At 18, she is forced into prostitution by the Japanese and circumstances compel her to continue “whoring” after the war. Displaying a rare beauty and a quiet self-possession, she is popular with the local men and distrusted by the women. Dewi Ayu gives birth to three beautiful daughters, all with different fathers, all of whom suffer tragedy.

Three hapless men — bandit Maman Gendeng, independence fighter Shodancho, and Comrade Kliwon, a communist leader — are in thrall to Dewi Ayu and her exquisite offspring.

The fate of the women of his homeland, Kurniawan suggests, was largely determined by such men, be they Dutch colonisers, Japanese occupiers, independence fighters or Suharto loyalists. Local myth and superstition also influence the lives of Dewi Ayu, her daughters and her grandchildren. One legend tells of the beautiful Princess Rengganis, who marries a dog and settles in Halimunda, “Land of Fog”. Her story serves as a warning to beautiful women in the region. Centuries later, beauty is still equally revered and feared.

In Kurniawan’s world, the lust for revenge is never-ending, from the time of Dutch colonisers to the bloodletting in the two years preceding Suharto’s three-decade dictatorship. Indonesia’s internal and political conflicts are his novel’s central themes, and he vividly depicts their impact on ordinary people’s lives. Take this chilling account of the military’s 1965 massacre of communists and alleged leftists: “The city of Halimunda was now filled with corpses sprawled out in the irrigation channels and on the outskirts of the city, in the foothills and on the riverbanks, in the middle of bridges and under bushes. Most of them had been killed as they tried to escape.”

The abuse of women and girls is presented as the inevitable fallout of violent conflict, and makes for difficult reading. After being raped by Shodancho, Dewi Ayu’s eldest daughter Alamanda lies helpless as he crows, “It’s too bad you met me, Alamanda. I win every war I fight, including the war against you.”

Annie Tucker’s skilful translation captures Kurniawan’s matter-of-fact prose and black humour. Elements of the supernatural and oral storytelling combine powerfully to evoke a brutal past and some of the pivotal events that helped shape Indonesia today.

imgresHis 2004 novel Man Tiger (translated into English by Labodalih Sembiring last year), is a slimmer volume but just as savage a critique of violence against Indonesia’s women. Set in another fictitious coastal township, the central character Margio, “a child of domestic rape”, believes himself to be possessed by a tiger — “white as a swan, vicious as an ajak”. As in Beauty is a Wound, it opens with the discovery of a corpse, then tracks back in time to reveal why Margio, now an adult, murdered his philandering neighbour Anwar Sadat (not the Egyptian former president). Like Beauty, Man Tiger is inspired by Indonesia’s oral storytelling tradition, so we are given the consequences of an act of violence before we learn the reason why it occurred.

In both novels, Kurniawan creates a vivid sense of poverty and rural isolation and weaves magic realism into his narratives to terrific effect. It’s easy to see why he is being compared to Gabriel García Márquez and hailed as one of the leading lights of contemporary Indonesian fiction.

Originally published by the Financial Times

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Book Review – Trio

Posted by lucypopescu on July 13, 2016


TrioSet in Northumberland during the austere interwar years, and depicting a country on the brink of change, Sue Gee’s latest novel could not be more timely. It transports us to a gentler, more innocent time. Despite the hardship faced by many of Gee’s characters, they are motivated by a sense of duty and compassion for others.

Trio opens in the wake of the 1936 Jarrow March with the death from tuberculosis of schoolteacher Steven Coulter’s beloved wife Margaret. He is numb with grief but soldiers on, finding comfort in the routine of work at Kirkhoughton Boys School. His charges are often unruly but most recognise the importance of acquiring knowledge in order to forge a better life for themselves. Memories of the Somme continue to loom over this small rural town and a sense of impending tragedy comes with the realisation that many will end up as cannon fodder, just as their fathers had before them.

Here poverty and wealth rub uncomfortably against one another, inequality is rife and a new order is brewing: “with men out of work and women scraping by; with the great march from Jarrow to London”, while conflict simmers away in Europe, “civil war in Spain, Hitler and Franco in alliance, women and children blown to pieces in a market square.” Set against this political ferment is the genteel world of Hepplewick Hall where a piano trio rehearse. The amateur musicians regularly perform at the Hall, in local country houses and village churches.

In an attempt to alleviate Steven’s suffering, his chivalrous, flamboyant colleague Frank Embleton introduces him to the trio. Steven unwittingly falls for Frank’s beloved Margot, a talented pianist from a well-to-do family. Margot is no stranger to bereavement, having lost her mother at an early age. Other than their shared pain, however, they have little in common (not least their different backgrounds). Gee suggests redemption comes through music – for Margot it is a passion, for Steven a revelation. Reflecting on the trio’s performance of Schubert’s Piano Trio No 2 in E flat major, he realises: “the whole piece was a conversation between their instruments, a move from question to answer, from gentle enquiry to passionate response.”

As well as demonstrating a love of chamber music, Gee is a terrific observer of the natural world – daily life follows the changing seasons, the repetition of nature’s rhythms offer solace – and evokes many of the senses in her descriptions: “Spring came with the sheep trotting up the track again, the farmer touching his cap…lambs racing and butting and crying as the flock spread out in the sun. The thorn tree was thick with white blossom, the tough moorland grass and the bracken greened up, the heather was a purple haze. Then came the call of the curlew.”

But war, as it always does, disrupts this serenity, and personal tragedy threatens the fragile equilibrium of the trio. The final part of this well-crafted novel is set in the present, where we learn the fates of Gee’s characters and are reminded of how the past affects and shapes the present. Gee brilliantly recreates a bygone era and delivers a tender meditation on love and loss.

Originally published by



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Film Review – Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

Posted by lucypopescu on July 3, 2016

ab-fab-imgIt’s incredible to think that Absolutely Fabulous, the popular sitcom starring Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley, ran from 1992–2012. Some twenty-five years after the TV pilot, the pair are back, this time on the big screen; older but no wiser. Given the current malaise settling on Britain, the timing of Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (2016) could not be better. It’s all raucous, good natured fun and the laughs come thick and fast.

Patsy and Edina have been friends most of their lives. Now approaching sixty they attempt to revive their flagging careers and celebrity status by attending all the latest fashion shows and parties. Eddy still lives with her aging, but well-preserved, mother, played by June Whitfield, and her disapproving, stuffy daughter Saffy (Julia Sawalha) who has an impressionable daughter of her own, Lola (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness), just waiting to be led astray by Patsy and Eddy.

It’s 2016, money is a problem and Eddy’s Bollinger racks are bare. Once a self-styled Queen of fashion PR, Eddy is down on her luck – in the world of social media, everyone can now shape their own image. She’s only got Lula and Baby Spice on her books but there’s a rumour that Kate Moss may be in need of new representation. Patsy and Eddy head for the next celebrity party aiming to snare Moss. Swigging their way through the “Bolly” and chain-smoking, they come a cropper when Eddy accidentally pushes the supermodel off a balcony into the Thames where she disappears from view under the water. Believing that Eddy has killed Moss, the pair flee to Cannes, taking Lola and her credit card with them, and hole up at one of the Riviera’s most exclusive hotels. There Patsy is forced to pose as a gigolo in order to attract the advances and wealth of an ancient crone. They swiftly marry and Eddy and Patsy look set for a life of luxury, lolling by the pool and chatting up the waiters, until the police (and Saffy) catch up with them.

There may not be much of a plot, but it’s all good, clean fun with numerous celebrity cameos: Kathy Burke, Christopher Biggins, Lily Cole, Joan Collins, Jerry Hall, Barry Humphries, Stella McCartney and Graham Norton to name but a few. Director Mandie Fletcher exploits every opportunity for spectacle and visual gags: such as when Patsy wakes up and starts injecting her face with Botox; when she is tasered by a surly airhostess (Rebel Wilson) on a budget airline; or when she meets the smouldering Jon Hamm (Mad Men) at a party and a look of horror passes across his face as he recalls losing his virginity to her at the age of fifteen. Lumley dressed as a man, complete with pencil moustache, is also a joy to behold.

It’s the stars that make the movie and some may feel that’s something of a cop out but, in these days of austerity, the excesses and absurdity of Absolutely Fabulous feel strangely uplifting, even if it is all over in a flash.

Originally published by

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Theatre review – The Quiet House

Posted by lucypopescu on July 3, 2016

The Quiet HouseIn The Quiet House Gareth Farr explores the topical subject of infertility with great sensitivity and flair. Jess (Michelle Bonnard) and Dylan (Oliver Lansley), a loving couple in their mid-30s, are trying for a child. When they decide to go down the IVF route their relationship is tested to the limits.

Jess works from home and holds imaginary conversations with the child she so desperately wants. Dylan tries to keep his head down at the office, unwilling to tell Tony (Tom Walker), his boss and friend, the real reason he needs time off and why he doesn’t want to take business trips abroad.

Farr drives home the discomfort many couples feel about discussing infertility. He also vividly evokes the unnerving process of IVF: the regular injections Jess has to endure; the trepidation the pair feel as they wait for the call that will tell them how many embryos have survived and, finally, the unbearable two-minute wait for the pregnancy test result.

Bonnard conveys Jess’s descent into obsession, her bitter disappointment, with unflinching honesty. Lansley is also compelling as the husband who gradually realises he has only a supporting role as sperm donor and comforter.

The play could be shorter. The histrionic opening, when Dylan describes teenagers shoplifting after the death of a shopkeeper while Jess is desperate to utilise the optimum time for possible conception, feels unnecessary.

However, for the most part this is a powerful and poignant drama and it’s no surprise to learn that Farr’s eloquence comes from personal experience.

Park 200

020 7870 6876

Originally published by Camden Review

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Book Review – Her Father’s Daughter

Posted by lucypopescu on July 3, 2016

Her Father's DaughterOur childhood memories do not always tally with real events. Often it is only years later that we realise the true significance of our earliest experiences. This is the premise of Marie Sizun’s brilliant novella (originally published in French in 2005), translated by Adriana Hunter, and available in English for the first time courtesy of Peirene Press.

Founded by Meike Ziervogel in 2008, Peirene’s books are all award-winners or best-sellers in their countries of origin and have enjoyed success over here too. Almost all their titles have featured on Books of the Year lists or have been longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Most recently, White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen, translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah, was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize. Every year, Ziervogel curates three novellas according to specific themes. Her Father’s Daughter is the second book in Peirene’s 2016 ‘Fairy Tale: End of Innocence’ series.

Set during the dying days of the Second World War, four-year-old France (a namechosen, duty-bound by the war”) lives with her mother in Paris. Her father, whom she has never met, is incarcerated in a German prison camp. France’s carefree existence is thrown into disarray when her father returns, emaciated and irritable. Suddenly, she does not have the undivided attention of her adored mother, Li. Her father thinks she is spoilt and accuses Li of over- indulging their child. He tries to instil some discipline and flies into inexplicable rages when France refuses to eat, draws on the walls or belts out at the top of her lungs her “warlike songs”. He often metes out cruel punishments – slapping France or making her sit in the hall outside their apartment.

France is baffled by her parents’ volatile relationship – by turn loving and argumentative. Sizun perfectly captures France’s initial jealousy over their closeness, their whispered confidences and silent embraces, in beautifully controlled, simple prose: “The child can see she’s no longer the object of her mother’s adoration. The loved one is her father. He’s called ‘darling’ now, not her. He’s looked at, as she was before, with that tender, slightly anxious expression, not her. He’s admired. Not her. Not any more.”

France recalls a scene from the past, a trip to Normandy with Li and her grandmother, but resents the women’s assurance that she must have been dreaming. Distressed by the realisation that her beloved mother is lying she hardens her heart towards her. Increasingly, lonely she retreats under the table where she talks to her tattered doll: “commenting on her grievances, going over her resentments. She thinks about everything new in her mother’s behaviour, everything new about her disenchantment… mulls over things she keeps to herself: memories, old problems, unsolved questions. In her head she tries to establish the boundaries between dreams and reality, and explores, yet again, the dishonesty displayed by adults.” Gradually, France shifts her affections and attempts to win over her father. She decides to tell him what she witnessed in Normandy with devastating and unexpected consequences.

This is a terrific evocation of a young child’s early rejection of her mother and her attempts to connect with her father. France’s jealousy is superseded by bafflement, an irrational hope” and inexplicable fury as she tries to make sense of the breakdown of her parents’ relationship and to understand their moments of “terrifying silence”. She tries to ignore Li’s tears, disdains her puffy face and is wary of her detachment. She no longer understands her actions: “The mother, still in her dressing gown, an old pink dressing gown that the child doesn’t like, drifts about the place, puts a few things away. The child notices that the apartment’s very untidy, with clothes on the furniture, the kitchen in a mess, full of dirty dishes.” She is alarmed by her mother’s face, “her pallor, her mess of hair…She doesn’t want her mother to touch her. To kiss her.” Finally, France has to decide which parent to side with.

What are our earliest memories of our fathers? France recalls her father’s distinctive smell of tobacco and eau de cologne, his large hands covered by freckles which, from a child’s perspective, resemble “giraffe’s skin”. She grows to adore him, like she once had her mother, but has to endure the painful childhood experience of “separation” from them both. She forgives her father his ill temper and resents her mother’s increasing neediness as he withdraws from her. Her Father’s Daughter is a poignant, psychologically complex and quietly devastating study of a child blossoming into awareness and her subsequent alienation from her parents.

A prize-winning French author based in Paris, Sizun has published seven novels and a memoir. Her Father’s Daughter was her remarkable debut, written at the age of sixty-five, and longlisted for the Prix Femina. It is flawlessly translated by Adriana Hunter, who has translated three previous titles for Peirene: Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi, for which she won the 2011 Scott Moncrieff Prize, Under The Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda, and Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean. Adriana Hunter has been short-listed twice for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Originally published by

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Film Review – The Meddler

Posted by lucypopescu on July 3, 2016



The MeddlerAlthough Lorene Scafaria tender, bittersweet comedy, The Meddler (2016), starring Susan Sarandon and J.K. Simmons, is marred by the occasional cliché, it’s also an unexpectedly perceptive film about loneliness, grief and mother-daughter relationships.

After the death of her beloved husband, Joe, Marnie Minervini (Sarandon) moves to Los Angeles to be close to her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne), a successful, but frustrated, screenwriter. Lori is still recovering from a recent break up with her actor boyfriend (Jason Ritter) and resents her smothering mother’s frequent attempts to connect (Marnie is addicted to texting and voice messaging her daughter.) Unabashed, Marnie attempts to charm Lori’s friends instead, freely dispensing advice, offering to babysit and generously agreeing to pay for one friend’s wedding. She even drops in on Lori’s therapist, hoping to learn more about her daughter’s state of mind. Lori throws herself into her work while Marnie struggles to stave off loneliness.

Marnie’s attempts to keep busy lead to some surprising encounters. She befriends a salesman in an Apple store (Jerrod Carmichael) and encourages him to take evening classes. She even offers to drives him there and back. She reunites a confused old woman in hospital with her family. But her most memorable run in is with Zipper (Simmons) a retired cop who, by contrast, rescues Marnie on more than one occasion.  He rides a Harley Davidson, keeps chickens, and plays guitar.

There’s an evident romantic attraction between the pair but Marnie is hesitant to take things further and, we realise, she still hasn’t got over the death of Joe. This is further underlined when she visits Joe’s family in New York and they have to remind her that it is actually two years since he died and not one. Marnie has lost all track of time – that’s what grief does. Her hatred of silence, her constant need to chatter, to connect with others, is so that she doesn’t have to think about her loss. By contrast, Lori’s grief manifests itself in the frustration she shows Marnie when she oversteps the boundaries she has so assiduously erected.

Scafaria is writing from personal experience and it shows in some of the understated but utterly credible scenes which illuminate the grieving process. Undoubtedly there are some cringe-worthy moments in a narrative that is, on one level, about meddling Mums and fresh starts. But take The Meddler as something a bit more, a film about loneliness and loss, and there are ample rewards. Not least Sarandon’s pitch-perfect central performance as a mother who is both frustrating and fun to be around and whose restlessness helps her to remain sane.

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Book Review – Migrant Women’s Voices: Talking About Life and Work in the UK Since 1945

Posted by lucypopescu on June 17, 2016

Migrant Women's VoicesSince 6 April 2016 all skilled workers from outside the EU who have been living in Britain for less than 10 years need to earn at least £35,000 a year to settle permanently here, even if they have lived here for years contributing to the UK culture and economy. Some jobs, such as nurses, are exempt. Under the new rules those who have come to work in Britain from outside the EU will be deported after five years if they fail to show they are earning more than £35,000.According to the Independent, which set up a campaign protesting against the measures, these people need a work sponsor, are not entitled to receive public funds, have to pay a health surcharge to access the NHS and must also put up a sizeable fee – sometimes in excess of £1,000 – to have their visas extended by a year.

This hard-line approach is in stark contrast to 1945, when Britain was crying out for migrant labour. It’s also remarkable considering our current dependence on increased spending within the economy and the benefit of migrant labour to the government’s budget. Today’s anti-migrant rhetoric makes Linda McDowell’s exploration of female migration since the end of World War II particularly timely. And, as McDowell observes, ‘immigration and making a living are at the top of many people’s concerns about their own lives and those of their children.’

Migrant Women’s Voices pays testament to the numerous female migrants who contributed to the post-war reconstruction effort and joined the British workforce beyond those austere times. McDowell charts how Britain was transformed into a multi-cultural society following changes in migration patterns from the post-war and post imperial recruits to those fleeing conflict zones and others employed in specific jobs, such as nurses and unskilled workers in the textile industry. In the 40s and 50s many female migrants came here because British-born women left the labour market, encouraged to return to their ‘traditional’ role as wives and mothers and because ‘an alternative labour force’ was required for the jobs they left. However, as McDowell points out: Many people have little ‘idea of the percentage of the UK population that was born abroad (about 13 percent in 2015) and often over estimate it.’

Focusing on 74 women born outside the UK who came here to work, McDowell’s stated aim is ‘to provide a rich and vivid source though which to counter conventional narratives of post-war change as well as to record for posterity individual stories that are in danger of being forgotten.’ The narratives are based on oral histories from face-to-face interviews with migrant women (collected between 1992 and 2012) who talk about their experiences and work in the UK. McDowell chooses to leave their accounts in full which makes for some hard reading at times. Many of the pieces would have benefitted from light editing to remove repetition or for further clarification. For instance, Harshini (born in the Punjab and brought up in Nairobi) describes being accepted for work at the large Ford plant in Dagenham:

At interview, they test me on the machining, machine test. Then they talk ‘why you applied, why you come here, why you work in Ford?’ Then I say ‘I need the money for my children, that’s why I apply. I like to work over here.’ That’s the things we talked, generally talk this, yeah, then they say ‘you take your test in machining.’ When I went on machine, they test me on machine.

The women describe their often difficult journeys here, their struggles to make a new life, the minutiae of their everyday work in hospitals, care homes, factories and hotels, as well as the pressures of working in banks and universities. Furthermore, as the accounts illustrate ‘people of colour and in-migrants, including people from the new European Union member countries, are [often] constructed as the Other, different from the norm, still strangers and sometimes, not always, visibly different and subjected to unequal treatment.’

The level of racism suffered over the decades remains shocking. In the 1960s and 70s post-colonial migrants would often find signs in windows of rooms to rent that read ‘no Irish, no blacks, no dogs.’ Ellen was born in Hong Kong in 1962 and came to the UK at the end of the 1970s. She was employed in the family fast food business and often had to put up with people calling her ‘chinky.’ Nadia, a Polish woman in her thirties, began work as a bus driver in 2007:

I’ve been called ‘fucking Polish bitch’ many times, many times… So many times I was called bitch. I was called stupid Polish bitch or bloody foreigner or that stuff that is not pleasant. It’s quite sad when you try to do your job properly and you do everything correct and suddenly they just come and attack you and without any reason.

McDowell covers many decades and the variety of work that has, over the years, been available to female migrant workers. Some like Victoria (Singaporean Chinese) took advantage of the employment boom in the computing industry early in the millennium. The employment of migrants to write code became known as ‘bodyshopping.’ One wonders if Victoria would make the new income threshold today. Romanian-born Ani came to the UK in 1993 on a one month visiting scholarship at a university. Later she applied for a doctorate and funded her studies by working as a research assistant in the engineering science department at Oxford, before getting work on a research project. She is now a departmental lecturer. Shami, from India started a doctorate at Oxford in 1988 but found herself having to challenge various conventions. She now works as a community educator and continues to deal with ‘patronising attitudes and racist assumptions.’

Caveats aside, McDowell’s project is admirable, her research thorough and the testimonies amply demonstrate “the huge commitment made to Britain, to its economy and to its population by ‘ordinary’ women … who made the decision to move across national borders and make a life elsewhere.’

Originally published by Review 31

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Book Review – Cut by Hibo Wardere

Posted by lucypopescu on June 17, 2016

CutHibo Wardere endured the barbaric practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in her native Somalia when she was just six years old. It is an experience she has never forgotten and one that prompted her to speak out against this brutal tradition. FGM continues to be illegally practised in the UK despite having been banned in the mid-1980s. Latest figures from the NHS suggest that around 137,000 women in the UK are affected by FGM. The final tally could be much higher owing to the secrecy surrounding this inhumane abuse of young girls.

Wardere begins her hugely accessible and compelling book with a graphic description of her own ordeal: “Terror ripped through my body in a shattering wave, as my lungs struggled under the weight of arms that crushed them; as my legs were forced into excruciating angles; as the cutter gripped her dirty razor and flicked the skin between my legs”. During the conflict in Somalia, Wardere fled to the UK and later married a fellow Somalian. They agreed that their daughters would not be cut. Wardere writes with unflinching honesty about the difficulties she had coming to terms with what she perceived as her mother’s betrayal, the pain associated with sex and giving birth and the hostility she has experienced in her own community for her outspokenness.

FGM is prevalent in twenty-nine countries in Africa and in parts of the Middle East and Asia. Many believe cutting a woman’s genital organs curtails her sexuality and prevents promiscuity. It is also considered proof of a woman’s virginity and is associated with family honour. Education is key, Wardere argues, and this also involves the re-education of fathers: “until men stand up against FGM and say, ‘I do not want this done to girls in my name’, the practice will continue”. She advocates “zero intolerance” towards the practice, claiming that any fear of “offending different cultures” is far outweighed by issues of child protection. She leaves no room for doubt. “If a visible part of the body was cut – an ear, an arm – would the practice then be seen differently?” Wardere recognizes, however, the problems faced by the police and law-enforcement agencies: “Girls and young women refusing to testify against their parents is one of the major reasons why there has not been one successful prosecution in thirty years”.

Cut is a courageous and heartfelt condemnation of a terrible violation against women which urgently needs to be stamped out.

Originally published by the TLS

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