Lucy Popescu

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Book Review – My Cat Yugoslavia

Posted by lucypopescu on December 23, 2017

Pajtim Statovci’s remarkable debut novel is a poignant examination of the migrant-refugee experience spanning two generations. In 1980, Emine, a young Kosovan woman, is married off to Bajram a handsome, educated and wealthy man. Too late she realizes he is controllin and abusive. After her wedding, Emine accepts that her choices are limited and resigns herself to serving her husband and bringing up their children. Neither bring her joy and their home situation worsens when war breaks out and the family is forced to flee to Finland.

Running parallel to Emine’s story is that of her adult son, Bekim, a gay man, looking for love and direction. Mother and son are alienated by choices outside their control and struggle to assimilate in their adopted country. Statovci writes perceptively of the exile’s overwhelming desire to fit in and be accepted. Bekim’s bitterness and sense of worthlessness are directly inherited from his father, who tells him that “Immigrants have to grow a thick skin if they want to do something more than wait hand and foot on the Finns . . . one day you’ll see that if you try and become their equal, they’ll despise you all the more . . . never try to be better than them”.

Bekim distances himself from both mother and father, moving to his own apartment as soon as he starts university, but even there he remains friendless. He is ashamed of his parents and uncomfortable with his homosexuality. As a child he had been tormented by nightmares about snakes. Now he buys a boa constrictor and keeps it as a pet. But it is not until he meets a talking cat in a gay bar that he is jolted out of his apathy. The cat moves in with Bekim and they enjoy a brief happiness together. It is some measure of Statovci’s skill that this magical realist element is integrated so seamlessly.

When they all fall out, after his snake almost murders the cat, Bekim sets out on a journey to discover his roots and his parents’ past. Emine, meanwhile, finds the strength to leave her loveless marriage and begins to fend for herself. Enchanting and disturbing, My Cat Yugoslavia serves as a stark reminder of the reverberating effects of dislocation. Despite their different levels of integration, mother and son remain outsiders who, Statovci suggests, risk becoming alienated from themselves.

Originally published in the TLS

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Book review – REFUGEE TALES Volume II

Posted by lucypopescu on October 23, 2017

The United Kingdom is the only country in Europe to indefinitely detain asylum seekers. A person seeking refuge here can be incarcerated for months or even years. Refugee Tales II seeks to make this shocking fact more widely known through sharing the stories of those who have been victims of this inhumane treatment. Inspired by The Canterbury Tales, twelve writers listen to and retell refugees’ stories, preserving their anonymity.

One of the most moving accounts in the collection is “The Abandoned Person’s Tale” as told to Olivia Laing. A student protester from an unnamed country arrives in England in the
1990s. He unwittingly buys a stolen plasma television from an acquaintance, is then arrested for receiving stolen goods and imprisoned. On his release, he is threatened with deportation.
Years go by in which he is living in limbo – he is not allowed to work – and his case goes to trial seventeen times. Two-and-a-half decades are stolen from this man: “That is what detention is: a thief of talent, of energy, of time”.

Some of the stories explore the “hostile environment” created in 2012 by Theresa May to counter “illegal migration”. Often, asylum seekers have no option but to enter the country with a false passport, in a freezer truck or under the belly of a lorry, in order to reach safety. In “The Mother’s Tale” as told to Marina Warner, a priest muses on what a “hostile environment”
really means and concludes: “It means sweeping up all kinds of people, branding them with the same stigma, regardless of their contribution, their humanity”. The mother in the story lives in constant fear of her partner being deported and does not go out alone any more: “I am afraid”, she says, “all the time.”

The Immigration Act of 2016 forces more and more desperate people into destitution. As Rachel Holmes perceptively observes in “The Barristers Tale”, “Waiting indefinitely to be removed imminently. It’s like Beckett and Orwell met for a bender on Bloomsday in the Kafka’s Head”. Read and weep for the plights of these people who have fled one hell to find themselves in another. All profits from the book go to Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group and Kent Refugees Help.

Originally published by the TLS

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Book Review Checkpoint

Posted by lucypopescu on August 2, 2017

There is a filmic quality to Jean-Christophe Rufin’s literary thriller, expertly rendered by translator Alison Anderson. Set during the Bosnian War in 1995, Checkpoint follows the fortunes of five French aid workers. The youngest, 21-year-old Maud, the lone female in the group, has cut her hair short and wears shapeless clothes, in an attempt to be taken seriously and to repel any unwanted advances. Lionel, the leader of the mission, lacks confidence and smokes weed from morning to night. Former soldiers, Alex and Marc, recruited because convoy drivers are in short supply, have their own secret agendas. Vauthier is the most sinister and repugnant member, hired for his skill as a mechanic, who the others suspect of being a spy: “He always looked as if he were in a bad mood, probably because of his thin lips and drooping eyelids. But his little black eyes were in constant movement searching everywhere, and they were all wary of him.”

The tensions between Vauthier and the two soldiers threaten to derail the mission and reach crisis point, when it transpires that Alex has spiked the load with construction explosives for extracting coal. His objective is to help a group of refugees hiding in a mine – the explosives will stop the tunnels from flooding and help preserve their industry. It is Maud who manages to persuade the other volunteers that it is a worthwhile endeavor, and “the most useful thing we can give these people.” But there are further revelations to come. The soldiers at each checkpoint become increasingly menacing, and they are all shocked to witness the aftermath of a brutal massacre of women and children:

On the damp earth there were fifty bodies or more, lying in grotesque positions. Their arms and legs were twisted, their heads lay at a painful angle from their necks, some had their faces in the mud. On the gray mass of bodies, most of which were clothed in dull, drab garments, the only color was that of blood. 

The frequent plot twists keep the reader guessing until the end, but this is at the expense of robust characterization. Vauthier, in particularly, remains a shadowy figure whose visceral hatred for Marc is never fully explained. Their backgrounds and reasons for joining the mission are revealed through passages of clunky exposition: We learn that Maud is a risk-taker, when she recalls a childhood memory of jumping off the adult diving board and fracturing her vertebra. Alex’s feelings of alienation are a result of his mixed race background and the reason why he falls for a young Bosnian refugee ostracized because of her ethnicity. Marc’s tough exterior is down to being a “war orphan” and bullied at school. At times, Rufin’s characters feel too simplistic, their motivations implausible, and this makes it difficult for us to feel sympathy for any of them.

In the novel’s second half, the pace never lets up and Rufin raises some interesting questions about the limitations of humanitarian aid. As a founder of Doctors Without Borders, Rufin clearly wants to lift the lid on this world. He understands the futility of taking chocolate and clothing through a war scorched land when another form of international intervention is desperately needed to halt the bloodshed. The Bosnian War may be long over, but Rufin’s concerns remain just as relevant today.

A longer version of this review is published on Versopolis.com

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Book Review – A HOPE MORE POWERFUL THAN THE SEA

Posted by lucypopescu on July 15, 2017

Asylum seekers continue to be stigmatized in the media, so it is refreshing to see more books being published that give refugees a voice. We need to change the negative propaganda surrounding those forced to flee war, poverty or intolerance. A Hope More Powerful than the Sea poignantly illuminates some of the reasons why our fellow humans embark on such perilous journeys to reach Europe.

Melissa Fleming, the Chief Spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, brings to life the harrowing tale of Doaa Al Zamel, a Syrian refugee. In clear, accessible prose, Fleming chronicles Doaa’s happy childhood in Syria, the early months of the uprising, and the brutal crackdown that ensued. When life in the midst of a war zone becomes intolerable, Doaa and her family seek refuge in Egypt.

They are initially welcomed and cared for by local Egyptians, but after President Mohamed Morsi is deposed, resentment towards the refugees grows and Doaa finds herself regularly abused by men on the street. Her fiancé, Bassem, also suffers from an increased hostility towards Syrian refugees. In poor health and unable to bear “a life of limbo in a country where its own citizens were facing a sinking economy, high inflation, and rising food prices”, Doaa finally agrees to accompany Bassem on a treacherous journey across the Mediterranean.

Before they reach Greece, their rusty fishing boat is deliberately rammed by a group of mindless racists. Doaa’s boat capsizes and those on board are flung into the water. Most drown instantly, some die an agonizing death as they are hacked to pieces by the boat’s propellers. Witnessing it all, Doaa keeps afloat with the help of a children’s inflatable ring for four days and nights. She clings on to two baby girls until her rescue, persevering for their sake.

A particularly chilling moment is Doaa’s realization that those onboard had been sold fake life jackets and inadequate flotation aids. Many of Doaa’s group, including her beloved Bassem, die because of this. Out of 500 people, only eleven survive the catastrophe.

One can only hope that by sharing Doaa’s story, her remarkable courage, Fleming will help people better understand why so many are prepared to risk so much in order to reach relative safety.

Originally published by the TLS

 

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Book Review – Swallowing Mercury

Posted by lucypopescu on July 15, 2017

In Swallowing Mercury, longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize, Wioletta Greg explores the rite of passage of a young girl growing up in in communist Poland during the 1980s. Partly autobiographical, it is set in the Jurassic Upland, in the small fictional village of Hektary.

Wiola’s childhood experiences are related through a series of vignettes creating a vivid portrait of a rural community. Daily routines are punctuated by extraordinary events. When a rumour spreads that the Pope will drive past their village, the local women gather in Wiola’s home to make pennants for bunting from scraps of material, and toast the Holy Father’s health with homemade egg liqueur. Later, the bunting is destroyed by “the men whose task it was to destroy the decorations” (Wiola describes this matter-of-factly, not yet understanding the tensions between the Roman Catholic Church and the communist state). While Wiola waited in the rain, the Pope flew elsewhere.

The villagers are as superstitious as they are religious. A red ribbon is tied around Wiola’s wrist as soon as she is born, “to ward off evil spells” and later, when Wiola faints in church, a red ribbon is tied in her hair “to break the spell.” Her mother tells her spiders are “sacred” and forbids her from killing them: “When the Holy family was fleeing from Jerusalem, spiders wove such a thick web around the road, that the swords of Herod’s soldiers couldn’t pierce it.”

The shadow of communism is ever present in the “piles of Breeze blocks” that lie beside “haystacks, apple and cherry trees” and the state-owned farms that blight the natural landscape. But government repression is brought home most forcefully when a local official interrogates Wiola at school, about her painting in a competition entitled Moscow in Your Eyes. Her ink pen had leaked over the painting, ruining it with “a viscous ocean of indigo.” The officer tries to bribe her with chocolate to tell him who had put her up to this: “Was it your parents? Or maybe the teacher who runs the art club?” Wiola, whether in fear or weary of the questions, vomits, and is finally left alone.

Greg is a poet, and there is a lyrical quality to her writing. She draws on all the senses, rendered in simple, childlike prose and deftly translated by Eliza Marciniak. Early on, Wiola describes the sun as “white and spotted like a goose egg.” As she gets older, her language and sensibility become more complex: “The air smelled of metal. An inaudible blues hummed in the web of the telegraph wires taut from frost.” The smells and taste of childhood are also brilliantly evoked though food, ranging from buckwheat blood pudding and beef roulade with cabbage to fried doughnuts and sour cherries.

The book’s anecdotal tone draws the reader in, but it is also deceptive. Take Wiola’s description of swallowing mercury, after a doctor had attempted to sexually molest her: “I put an immersion heater in a metal mug, boiled some water and dipped a thermometer into the liquid. The mercury container burst. Silver beads spilled onto the bedding. I gathered them up. I hesitated for an instant, but when I remembered Kwiecien’s face, I swallowed the balls like caplets and fell asleep.” It is an act of defiance that nearly kills her.

Swallowing Mercury is a multi-layered, prose poem of Poland’s chequered past, and Greg is unflinching in her gaze: Whether it is the family’s fortitude, the clash of church and state, or the beauty and brutality of rural life.

Originally published by www.versopolis.com

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Book Review – Threads: From the refugee crisis

Posted by lucypopescu on June 25, 2017

 

Calais was once famous for the art of lace-making; now it is better known for the groups of desperate refugees who gather in its port hoping to cross into Britain. In early 2016 the cartoonist and activist Kate Evans (who is also the author of Red Rosa: A graphic biography of Rosa Luxemburg, 2015) volunteered for a brief stint in the refugee camp known as the Jungle. Her new graphic novel Threads depicts the shantytown before it was demolished later that year. A ribbon of lace frames each page, the delicate threads standing in sharp contrast to the refugees’ harsh existence.

Instead of finding sanctuary in Europe, they live in limbo. Evans’s subjects are shunted between camps in Calais and Dunkirk, and she meticulously documents their helplessness, along with their remarkable endurance. Her eyewitness reportage is punctuated with news headlines about the various atrocities fuelling the refugee crisis – the Russian fighter planes bombing Syria and US forces bombing the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, for example. Evans also captures in separate cartoons the political prejudice of Theresa May, Britain’s then Home Secretary, claiming that there is no economic benefit to migration, and France’s Marine Le Pen encouraging distrust of Muslims as she addresses a rally in Calais.

The squalor of the Jungle is evident in Evans’s illustrations. Only twenty-four toilets are provided for 5,000 people, and the water tests positive for faecal contamination. The diversity of the inhabitants is represented by the ramshackle colourfulness of her sketches of them. Attempts to help the refugees, some of whom are unaccompanied children as young as seven, can be chaotic: Evans depicts aid workers trying to distribute children’s clothes, overwhelmed by lines of desperate men. Swimming goggles are dis carded as impractical and, too late, it is recognized that they would have provided a useful defence against tear gas. Evans is quick to note the Kafkaesque decisions of the authorities – on two separate occasions, refugees and aid workers are prevented from bringing fresh bread or dry bedding into the camp.

Evans also shares the pejorative texts she has received condemning her voluntary work. When one text message claims, “These refugees are safe in France where they could claim asylum if they wanted 2 shame they want our benefits too much!”, she responds with a series of stark illustrations (leached of colour, the frames increased in size) showing three refugee men being brutally beaten by unidentified assailants. One victim later remarks, “they were wearing blue suits. Like the ones that the police wear, but with the emblems torn off”.

Police brutality is seen as shamelessly open. Evans’s illustrations convey the terrifying spectacle of rows of riot police and bulldozers, and the fear of the Jungle’s inhabitants as they are tear-gassed. The author learns of one fifteen-year-old boy whose skull has been fractured, and a pregnant woman who has been slapped by police. Again and again, her narrative emphasizes the desperation of people trying to reach safety, and she includes some haunting snapshots explaining why they have fled their native countries, ranging from torture and rape to sustained persecution for being gay. The appalling threads of these people’s lives coalesce to form a bigger picture with an underlying message: we need to treat our fellow humans with care and respect, for inhumanity breeds inhumanity.

A mother herself, Kate Evans depicts her young subjects with remarkable tenderness. We’re not told about a child’s boredom, fear or meltdown – we see it. Their lives are on hold and many are battling despair. Back in Britain, the author depicts herself watching the demolition of the Jungle on her phone and remarks: “It’s more than some people’s homes that are being destroyed. It’s their minds”. Her book ends on a chilling note: after the eviction, 129 lone children disappeared from the camps. As Threads makes clear, one child is too many; 129 is a humanitarian catastrophe.

Originally published by the TLS

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Book Review – The Book of Mirrors

Posted by lucypopescu on June 18, 2017

E. O. Chirovici’s psychological thriller almost did not see the light of day. It was turned down by numerous publishers and it was only on the advice of Robert Peett, the founder of Holland House Books, that Chirovici persisted. He was eventually signed by a leading UK literary agent and has since enjoyed a competitive auction and world-wide rights sales.

The Book of Mirrors is narrated from the different perspectives of three men and focuses on the brutal murder of the renowned psychologist Professor Joseph Weider in 1987. Twenty seven years later, Richard Flynn, a former student at Princeton, sends a book proposal to a literary agent, Peter Katz, which describes the professor’s final days. Flynn was a prime suspect at the time, but no-one was ever tried for Weider’s murder and the case went cold. Katz believes Flynn’s manuscript contains a confession or holds clues to the murderer’s identity. Either way, he thinks it’s a potential blockbuster, but Flynn dies before delivering his novel. Katz hires John Keller, an investigative journalist, to pull the threads together. Keller fails to ascertain who is telling the truth and, increasingly disillusioned, passes on his findings to the detective originally
responsible for the case who is now retired and suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

Does The Book of Mirrors deserve the hype? Yes and no. Impressively, Chirovici writes in English rather than his native Romanian and he has produced a strong plot which keeps the reader guessing until the very end. His three narrators, however, are sketchily drawn and the motivations of crucial characters lack psychological
depth. This is disappointing considering the book’s central theme is the cognitive neuroscience of memory.

Although there is a meta-fictional quality to the novel, the literary quotes preceding each of the three sections are slightly misleading – this is less a literary thriller and more firmly rooted in the crime fiction genre. The cover’s strapline, “one man’s truth is another man’s lie”, is an empty statement – probably the result of an over-enthusiastic marketing team.

Caveats aside, The Book of Mirrors engages on a number of levels. Chirovici delights in leading the reader down various blind alleys and keeps us turning the pages until his unexpected denouement.

Originally published by the TLS

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Theatre review – The Plague

Posted by lucypopescu on April 22, 2017

 

The Plague After La Peste by Albert Camus

Adapted and directed by Neil Bartlett

Arcola Theatre, Running until 6 May

Box Office: 020 7503 1646

 

Albert Camus’s 1947 novel describes the effects of a plague in the French Algerian city of Oran. Some claim La Peste was inspired by the cholera epidemic that ravaged Oran in 1849, others thought it was about the Nazi occupation during World War II. This ambivalence is part of the story’s power and one that Neil Bartlett fully recognises in his engaging, multi-layered production.

Played out on a largely bare stage, Bartlett’s adaptation opens with five characters sitting behind a table at some sort of official enquiry. They begin to share their experiences. The first sign of the impending catastrophe is the discovery of rats’ corpses. Then people start to die and the authorities fail to take decisive action.

Dr Rieux (Sara Powell) works tirelessly to save lives but there are other, less scrupulous characters. Rambert (Billy Postlethwaite) is a journalist more interested in escaping the city’s lockdown to be reunited with his girlfriend than reporting the truth while Mr Cottard (Joe Alessi), a petty criminal, tries to turn events to his advantage and make money smuggling desperate people out of the city.

I was reminded of the HiNi pandemic, the Ebola outbreak and the current refugee crisis. What Bartlett draws out are the human responses to tragedy – some kind, others cruel, or self-serving. But as Dr Rieux remarks, the most merciful act is “to speak up and bear witness; to make sure that there is at least some memory of the injustices and violences that are done to people…” It’s a poignant piece of theatre with particular relevance to our troubled times.

 

Originally published by Camden Review

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Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award Shortlist 2017

Posted by lucypopescu on April 13, 2017

The Authors’ Club is pleased to announce that the shortlist for the annual Best First Novel Award is as follows:

GUINEVERE GLASFURD, The Words In My Hand (Two Roads)

The judges commented: It’s a lovely book, taking the genre of historical fiction to a new level and it rings true.  There is a strong faithfulness to the known facts, coupled with a wonderfully sensitive imagination and a total lack of sentimentality.  

 ROWAN HISAYO BUCHANAN, Harmless Like You (Sceptre)

The judges commented: A vividly written story about a young Japanese woman who, comes of age in New York. An ambitious account of the search for identity and the need to belong in some way. The nuances of cultural differences are fascinating.

 JESS KIDD, Himself (Canongate)

The judges commented: An original and unusual book set in a remote village in the west of Ireland. A terrific murder mystery, Jess Kidd is a fabulous writer, and I’m sure we’ll hear much more of her. 

BARNEY NORRIS, Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain (Penguin)

The judges commented: It is a beautifully moving, thought-provoking creation… There is an underlying sense of sadness, loneliness, regret and uncertainty as the lives of five people become tenderly and unknowingly intertwined.

HARRY PARKER, Anatomy of a Soldier (Faber)

The judges commented: A gripping work, terse, perceptive and profound. The reality of life in a modern war zone is presented with astonishing detail and focus. An unforgettable and powerful read.

FRANCIS SPUFFORD, Golden Hill (Faber)

The judges commented: Spufford’s writing is of the highest literary order. The plot is intricate beyond the dreams of Machiavelli and the prose flows with unwavering assurance, arresting imagery and much vivid detail.

Lucy Popescu (chair of the judging panel) commented: “This year, we had a very strong longlist, producing a passionate debate, but we managed to whittle down the list to six books. I’m relieved we have Roma Tearne, this year’s guest adjudicator, to decide our overall winner.”

The prize is open to any debut novel written in English and published in the UK between 1 Jan and 31 Dec 2016 with one important exception: novels first published in another country of origin will not be considered. The prize of £2500 exists to support UK-based authors, publishers and agents, so the novel must originate in the UK and not have been published anywhere else in the world before its UK publication  Inaugurated in 1954, the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award is now in its 64th year, making it the longest-running UK prize for debut fiction and – except for the James Tait Black and the Hawthornden – the oldest literary prize in Britain.

Past winners have included Brian Moore, Alan Sillitoe, Paul Bailey, Gilbert Adair, Nadeem Aslam, Diran Adebayo, Jackie Kay, Susan Fletcher, Nicola Monaghan, Laura Beatty, Anthony Quinn, Jonathan Kemp, Kevin Barry, Ros Barber and Carys Bray. Last year’s prize was awarded to Benjamin Johncock.

The winning novel is selected by guest adjudicator Roma Tearne from a shortlist drawn up by a panel of Authors’ Club members, chaired by Lucy Popescu.

Past adjudicators have included Vikram Seth, Philip Hensher, Joanne Harris, Deborah Moggach and, going back further, Kingsley Amis and Compton Mackenzie.

Key Dates

Shortlisted authors event at Waterstones Piccadilly: Thursday 25 May

The Winner will be announced by Roma Tearne, this year’s guest adjudicator at a dinner at the National Liberal Club: Thursday 8 June 

 

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Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award

Posted by lucypopescu on April 10, 2017

Best First Novel Award Longlist 2017

The Authors Club is pleased to announce that the longlist for the Best First Novel Award 2017 award is as follows:

ALYS CONRAN, Pigeon (Parthian Books)
GUINEVERE GLASFURD, The Words In My Hand (Two Roads)
ROWAN HISAYO BUCHANAN, Harmless Like You(Sceptre)
CHARLOTTE HOBSON, The Vanishing Futurist(Faber)
JESS KIDD, Himself (Canongate)
JEM LESTER, Shtum (Orion)
BARNEY NORRIS, Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain (Penguin)
GRAHAM NORTON, Holding (Hodder)
HARRY PARKER, Anatomy of a Soldier (Faber)
FRANCIS SPUFFORD, Golden Hill (Faber)
RADHIKA SWARUP, Where the River Parts (Sandstone)
ELEANOR WASSERBERG, Foxlowe (4th Estate)

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