Lucy Popescu

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Posts Tagged ‘Granta’

Book Review – Cove

Posted by lucypopescu on December 4, 2016

coveStories of individuals pitted against the cruel forces of nature have a broad and enduring appeal, from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. When executed well, survival narratives take hold of your imagination and remain with you. It is this rich seam that Welsh novelist Cynan Jones mines in his novella Cove.

In a short prologue — a dreamlike sequence narrated in the second person — a woman waits on a shore. Then the focus shifts to a man, adrift at sea, having been struck by lightning. As well as being paralysed in one arm, he has lost his mental moorings and is unsure of who he is or why he is marooned in a fragile kayak covered in a thin veil of ash.

As Jones tracks back and forth in time in his characteristically spare prose, we learn that the man had come to sea to scatter his father’s ashes and to catch some fish for lunch. Jones’ economy of language means that his imagery, his choice of metaphors and similes, has to hit the nail every time. It is some measure of his skill as a writer that they invariably do. Consider the following descriptions of the man’s shattered memory: at first, he has only “a sense of himself, a fly trapped the wrong side of glass”. When he catches sight of his name on an address label “it was like looking into an empty cup”. He remembers the beginning of his journey and drifting out to sea, but “the time in between was gone. Like a cigarette burn in a map.”

Jones’ terse lyricism, together with his repetition of resonant images and motifs, encourage the reader to fill in the gaps as slivers of the man’s memory return: he finds a wren’s feather inside his dead mobile phone and “the sense of her came back”. He imagines her, “the bell of her stomach”, waiting for him on the beach. He knows they each have a feather. This slow, partial remembering serves as a reawakening — it succours the man and gives him the will to live: “The idea of her, whoever she might be, seemed to grow into a point on the horizon he could aim for. He believed he would know more as he neared her.”

The odds are nevertheless stacked against Jones’ protagonist: he is suffering from overexposure, he has lost his paddles, he is injured and in pain, one arm is useless and he’s low on water. As he drifts, hopelessly, at the mercy of the sea and the weather, he becomes acutely aware of nature’s gentler side — the butterfly that alights on the boat, the sunfish staring him in the eye, the dolphins playing around his kayak. These precious reminders of the here and now strengthen his resolve to survive.

Jones strips the story down to its elemental core and much of it reads like a prose poem. His vivid descriptions allow us to feel the man’s physical discomfort and flagging spirit. Cove is a slighter work than Jones’ previous novel, The Dig, but explores similar themes. Just as The Dig was about the rhythms of rural life, Cove is about the dangerous, unknowable rhythms of the sea. Both are about devastation — one emotional, the other physical — and both examine love, loss, memory and the will to live. Cove is a haunting meditation on trauma and human fragility.


Originally published by


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Book review – Under the Udala Trees

Posted by lucypopescu on February 4, 2016

Udala TreesChinelo Okparanta’s remarkable debut novel tackles big issues. It begins with a powerful indictment of Nigeria’s ethnic tensions and the violence of the Biafran war, and continues as a compelling meditation on a patriarchal, God-fearing society and the brutal suppression of same-sex relationships.

Under the Udala Trees is also timely. In January 2014, Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria’s then president, approved legislation criminalising gay groups and public shows of same-sex affection. It was already illegal to have gay sex in Nigeria but now same-sex couples face up to 14 years in prison. In the northern states, the punishment is death by stoning.

The novel follows the fortunes of Ijeoma, an Igbo girl from south-east Nigeria. After her father is killed during the Biafran war, 11-year-old Ijeoma is sent by her grieving mother to live with a family friend, a grammar-school teacher and his wife. Ijeoma becomes their house girl. In return, the couple promise to fund her education once the war is over. There Ijeoma meets Amina, an orphaned Hausa girl, whom she persuades to share the “hovel” that is her bedroom and to work alongside her.


The two girls fall in love. When their relationship is discovered, they are forced to part and, on returning to her mother’s new home in Aba, Ijeoma has to endure interminable Bible sessions aimed at proving that their act of love was an “abomination”. Her mother has her own interpretation of Lot’s story from the Book of Genesis, in which he offers his two virgin daughters to the men of Sodom to protect his guests, two (male) angels. “Everybody knows what lesson we should take from that story,” claims Ijeoma’s mother. “Man must not lie with man, and if man does, man will be destroyed.” Ijeoma protests: “It couldn’t have been because they were selfish and inhospitable and violent?”

Okparanta’s novel is a denunciation of intransigent religiosity. A narrow reading of the Bible, she suggests, is partly to blame for Nigeria’s vicious treatment of the gay community. In an endnote, she refers to the 2012 WIN-Gallup International Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism, in which Nigeria ranks as the second most religious country after Ghana.

In Aba Ijeoma encounters Ndidi, a confident young schoolteacher, who rekindles her desire. Ndidi introduces her to a group of fellow lesbians who meet clandestinely in a nightclub — ironically housed in a church. But after she witnesses a terrible act of violence, Ijeoma is also torn between following her heart and tradition.Okparanta also underlines how superstition can determine the course of ordinary lives. When Ijeoma and Amina are later sent to the same boarding school they attempt to revive their relationship; after experiencing a vivid nightmare, Amina deserts Ijeoma and, following convention, marries a fellow Hausa. Years later it is an equally potent dream that causes Ijeoma to leave her husband and risk public opprobrium. Describing a mother’s reaction to a baby born with a harelip, Ijeoma reflects: “More than likely he would be left to perish, unwanted and unloved. Because this was the nature of such things, of anything that was outside the norm. They were labelled with such words as ‘curse’ and wasn’t it wise to keep curses at bay?”

Nigerian-born, Okparanta emigrated to the US with her family at the age of 10. Her experiences informed the short stories in her first book, Happiness Like Water; one of the stories, “America”, was shortlisted for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing. Under the Udala Trees confirms her talent, recalling the work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in its powerful interweaving of the personal and the political. Okparanta’s simple, direct prose is interspersed with the language of allegory and folklore and is scattered with biblical references. The dizzying scope of her storytelling keeps you gripped to the end.

Originally published by the Financial Times

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Book Review – Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot

Posted by lucypopescu on February 16, 2014

words will break cementInternational attention is focused on Russia’s hosting of the Winter Olympic Games this month, so Masha Gessen’s enlightening account of the detention and trial of feminist punk band Pussy Riot is timely.

In 2012, Maria Alyokhina, Kat Samutsevich and Nadya Tolokonnikova were sentenced to two years in a labour camp. They were accused of “hooliganism” and “hatred towards Orthodox believers” after staging a brief performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow aimed at drawing attention to the Russian Orthodox Church’s close ties to the Kremlin.

Throughout their trial they maintained that their “punk prayer” was a political protest and not anti-religious. In her defence statement Tolokonnikova argued: “Passion, openness and naivety exist on a higher ground than do hypocrisy, lying and false piety used to mask crimes. Top state officials go to church wearing the correct facial expression, but they lie, and in doing so they sin more than we ever did.” In court, the song’s lyrics were deliberately obscured so that anyone following the state media’s coverage would be unaware that it was a protest against Vladimir Putin.

The heavy-handed response of the authorities backfired. The feminists’ provocative act of resistance and subsequent trial served to draw global attention to Putin’s repressive rule and their harsh sentencing struck a chord with thousands of ordinary people around the world. Samutsevich was given a suspended sentence on appeal after her lawyer argued that she had not physically taken part in the action. Despite national protests and international calls for leniency Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova served time in appalling conditions (poignantly documented) in separate labour camps.

Gessen offers potted biographies of all three women, tracing the influences that led them into political activism. Central to Gessen’s book is her detailed record of the trial, which she compares to the dissident trials held between the 1960s and mid-1980s; they provided one of the few forums in the Soviet Union for public political debate. Gessen underlines the farcical elements of court procedure and how little has changed. Then, as now, the judge’s role was that of a “bureaucrat with a rubber stamp…[whose] job was to facilitate a smooth and speedy hearing…and to issue a preordained verdict”. The three defendants saw the importance of making bold political declarations they knew would be heard and Gessen includes full transcripts of their statements.

Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were released from prison last December. Many believe the amnesty was intended to distract attention from the protests surrounding Russia’s hosting of the Games. The book’s title, from a quote by Solzhenitsyn used by Tolokonnikova  in her closing statement, is apt. Words Will Break Cement serves as a powerful indictment of the return to soviet-era tactics to silence dissent.

Originally published in The Tablet

PEN is using Winter Olympics to highlight the draconian restrictions placed on free expression in Russia in recent months. For further information on PEN’s ‘Out in the Cold Campaign’ visit:



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Book review – Melisande! What Are Dreams?

Posted by lucypopescu on April 19, 2012

Hillel Halkin’s touching novel about love and friendship opens in New York in the 1950s and ends on a remote Greek island in the 1980s.

Three high-school friends share a passion for books and edit the student literary magazine. Hoo is secretly in love with Melisande but, when she initially chooses his best friend, Ricky, the balance between them subtly shifts. Ricky decides to leave school to become a bhikshu or wanderer. In a memorable passage, he goes to Central Park with Hoo and tries to give away his hard-earned dollars. He ends up in India under the tutelage of a renowned mystic.

Returning to New York, Ricky’s behaviour becomes more and more erratic as his search for enlightenment falters and he begins to hear voices. Melisande and Hoo watch helplessly as he slowly goes off the rails and ends up hospitalised.

Ricky’s dislocation from reality leaves the way open for Melisande and Hoo’s love affair to blossom, and they marry. Throughout their relationship, Ricky casts a shadow. The first cracks in their marriage appear when Melisande discovers that she is unable to conceive, and becomes obsessed with adopting a child. Halkin is eloquent when describing Melisande’s increasing resentment towards her husband. Equally, it seems, Hoo cannot quite forgive her for her relationship with Ricky.

Essentially, this is a beautifully crafted love letter from Hoo to Melisande that explores the nature of memory. Now a retired academic, he looks back over their life together, their early friendship and time apart. Hoo reflects on how a love of different books helped to shape the three friends’ destinies. Ricky’s love for Camus and Dostoyevsky led him abroad, Hoo became a scholar of ancient Greek philosophy, while Melisande’s passion for Keats was transmuted into weaving beautiful textiles and tapestry.

This gentle, satisfying novel touches on philosophy, poetry and mysticism as a means of better understanding ourselves in order to reach out and touch another. Halkin has a tender eye for the bittersweet journey of love: the shared joys and tiny betrayals, the mistakes and triumphs, and, finally, the healing power of forgiveness.

Originally published in the Independent

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Book Review – The New Granta Book of Travel

Posted by lucypopescu on November 26, 2011

In Travels with Herodotus, the Polish traveller-reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski remarked that “other cultures are mirrors in which we can see ourselves, thanks to which we understand ourselves better – for we cannot define our own identity until having confronted that of others, as comparison”, eloquently summarising what makes a great travel narrative.

Bill Burford compiled the first “Travel Writing” issue of Granta in 1983, and the magazine soon acquired a reputation for promoting this literary form. The New Granta Book of Travel, an anthology that includes writers from Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin to Lavinia Greenlaw and Rory Stewart, carries on the tradition.

What’s particularly interesting is how it illuminates the diversity of modern travel. In “Arrival” we have an asylum seeker’s first experience of coming to Britain. Albino Ochero-Okello’s poignant tale turns the idea of travel for pleasure on its head. For a refugee, travel is a means of survival.

Then there are the more anthropological dissections, such as Andrew Hussey’s provocative analysis of the immigrant banlieues in “The Paris Intifada”, in which he describes “the otherness of exclusion, of the repressed of the fearful and the despised”.

Most of us travel for leisure but, as Jonathan Raban points out in his introduction, “travel” has its roots in “travail” and “trepalium” – an ancient Roman instrument of torture. Sometimes a holiday can turn to horror, as illustrated by John Borneman’s evocative account of the tsunami that devastated his Sri Lankan beach idyll. The collection also includes unexpected journeys such as James Hamilton-Paterson’s descent to the depths of the Atlantic Ocean and Andrew O’Hagan’s description of the Glaswegian sludge boats that double up as cruise ships for the elderly.

It’s disappointing that there are not more female writers included – particularly because two memorable pieces come from women: Decca Aitkenhead provides a damning indictment of sex tourism in Thailand, while Wendell Steavenson gives a voice to a Sunni insurgent in Baghdad.

Renowned for his “literary reportage”, Kapuscinski is the writer who, for me, best sums up the allure of travel, but also its inherent frustrations. In “The Lazy River”, he describes the alienation of over travelling, to the extent that “we are no longer able to connect meaningfully with any image, view or landscape, with any event or human face”.

The upsurge in global travel means that those writing in the field have to do more than convey the essence of a remote place or people. This inspiring anthology celebrates the genre’s literary aspirations, as well as reminding us of the myriad ways in which exploring difference, even for armchair travellers, broadens minds.

Originally published in the Independent on Sunday

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