Older Brother is an interesting study of what it is to be a Muslim in modern day France.
The two brothers have Syrian heritage but moved to France many years before the current Syrian conflict. Their father is an atheist communist, and they have French Breton ancestry on their mother's side. So in fact, the two brothers are only Muslim through people's assumptions rather than their own upbringing. However, this is enough to create a distance between them and their French neighbours.
The older brother drives for Uber. His father has invested his pension fund into an official taxi licence and has to sit watching helplessly as the Uber wave washes away the value of the official licences. The younger brother is a trained nurse who has volunteered with a shadowy NGO to offer healthcare to embattled Muslim populations around the world. Perhaps he is in Syria.
The story foll0ws the brothers as they reunite in Paris - the younger brother having fled from Raqqa after finding the Islamic dream was really a nightmare. But France does not welcome returning jihadists, suspecting that many are sleeper agents pursuing a suicide-terror agenda.
The novel explores themes of conflicted loyalties - the loyalty to a brother or to a state; loyalty to a heritage or to a future. There are questions of trust; how far can you trust someone when their story keeps changing? Is this someone gradually coming clean or someone further obfuscating? And as older brother is expected to side with the state and the law, he finds that the state and the law do not reciprocate.
The story is compelling and complex. The pacing, however, starts off quite slowly. There are parts of the older brother's voice that feel quite clunky and it isn't clear whether this is supposed to reflect a narrator who is not completely comfortable speaking French or whether it is a sign of poor translation from French to English. Overall, though, these are minor considerations in a novel that is readable, suspenseful and addresses important and current social issues.
Review of The Bear and the Paving Stone by Toshiyuku Horie, translated by Geraint Howells
This short story collection has three stories in it. In the first, the title story, a man visits his friend from Petanque in Western France and has a weird dream involving the footpath becoming bears. Further to this, both recollecting of the past and looking at the present where the narrator gets to know the friend's neighbour and her blind son. The friend is Jewish and there is remembrance to events of World War 2 in the novel. The second story is about the narrator joining a woman on a beach to remember the anniversary of her brother's death (his friend) and the third involves two friends breaking into an old castle, one where the groundskeeper would even refuse the President of the Republic if he didn't have proper authorisation
The Bear and Paving Stone * * * * *
Sandman is Coming * * * 1/2
The Old Castle * * * *
All three stories were very good and I really enjoyed this collection, rather than full plotted stories, this is more about interaction between people than intrinsic plots and complicated storylines. At times, funny, other times heartfelt, it is always a pleasure when a short story collection does not let me down in the reading of it.
* * * *
Review of The Gender Games: The Problem with Men and Women from Someone who has been both by Juno Dawson.
It is very simple how this book had came onto my radar, I was looking for a dvd of a movie Juno at home but couldn't find it (I think someone borrowed it) so obviously as this is one of my favourite movies of all time (I have a thing for quirky comedies). So when ordering a new one on amazon, the second result was this book, intrigued by it. I did some due diligence on it and decided, "why not?", I needed to get the order up to £25 anyway.
Part biography and part social commentary, I really enjoyed reading Juno Dawson's book. I found it to be extremely funny at times but also she makes really good arguments and points on subjects. There are a fair amount of pop culture references and it goes from her early life to when she was writing this book, most of which I can relate to or get (for example, many mentions of Neighbours on the pages). She puts forward excellent arguments against those that try to deny transgender individuals and the passages in the book about her own life were really good and interesting. I found myself just really enjoying her writing style as it was a pleasure to read her point of views.
Maybe if the person that borrowed my Juno dvd ever returns it, I could thank them twice, one for returning the dvd and two for the happy accident that I had stumbled on this terrific book, brimming with humour but also very heart felt, she has such a compelling voice and this was a terrific red that I would never have heard of probably if it wasn't for whoever borrowed my Juno dvd.
Superb, enjoyable read but also one I agreed a lot with and thought overall this was a fantastic book.
* * * * *
Review of The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis, translated by Michael Lucey
This is a novel based on Louis' own upbringing, growing up in the 1990s in northern France (a small village in the Picardy region). To this life, Eddy is born as his father's first and mother's third child (her first husband died from cirrhosis of the liver). His father also seems to be going to go that way, with an alcohol problem mixed with a fighting problem. His father's alcohol fuelled rages often descending into tirades against homosexuality.
Eddy as a boy is effeminate and this causes difficulty as where he is growing up, an importance is placed on the gender roles of masculinity and femininity (indeed this showed when eddy's father was annoyed when he found out in the home care job that his mum was doing, she was earning €1,000 so had forced her to give it up), role that as a boy Eddy doesn't fit. His father found it humiliating when he had to try to find reasons why young Eddy didn't want to play football. Eddy was also better friends with girls than with boys (later on when refering to boys he hung around with, he would use mates italicised to indicate that he didn't really feel that way.
Despite this, the homophobia expressed by his parents, there are some tenderness in their relationship and his father despite some protestations, does love Eddy as shown
I could really identify to the problems in part 1 that Eddy experienced, trying to fit in in gender roles when you don't naturally fit in to them. Part 2 not so much but part 1 about the difficulty of trying to fit in to an ideal that you don't fit into, I can relate.
There is a brutal honesty in the narrative which I appreciated. It was a novel I really liked and a real credit to Louis' writing.
* * * * *
Review of Submission by Michel Houellebecq, translated by Lorin Stein
The controversial novel from Michel Houellebecq as if he'd write any thing but controversial text. In this novel as various articles about it referred to is that the Muslim Brotherhood wins the French presidential election in the run off against Marine Le Pen so their candidate, Ben Abbes takes over from Hollande in 2022 (so this is not a prophetic novel, complete fiction ) . Hoellebecq in a previous novel, the woeful Platform had long long anti-Muslim rants and I worried there could be the same in this.
The main character is Francois, a senior professor in a Paris University on literature, his specialist writer being the 19th century novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans. He regularly spends the year in a relationship with one of his students. Currently it is a Jewish girl called Myriam. Francois is probably also the most outgoing and social main character for a Houellebecq novel, occasionally attending functions and accepting dinner invitations although when compared to the others, this wasn't hard. Some usual tropes of his are also present - bad/non-existent parental links, , detailed sexual content.
I am intrigued with a few paragraphs on the flaws of nationalism on page 215 though my biggest conclusion being those in academic world who convert to Islam to keep their jobs are those that previously had nativist/national front connections and the imagined France under Abbes' Muslim Brotherhood being the Frances that liberals/left-wingers/socialists etc would be against but the support of these groups in the run of was what got Abbes elected only to see Abbes bring in policies contrary to these. I see this more than a critique on Islam/Muslim,it is more I feel a satire on politics in general and I think shots are taking against all sides.
I quite enjoyed this novel. Some Houellebecq novels have been terrible (Platform and Whatever) and some have been excellent (Atomised and The Possibility of an Island). This fits in as not being his greatest work but very good nonetheless.
* * * *