Girl, Woman, Other is an unconventional novel in the sense that it doesn’t have a plot, doesn’t have a particularly linear timeline, and doesn’t have a single focal character. What it is, essentially, is a collection of twelve different, loosely linked character studies that combine to create a sort of picture of black heritage in Britain.
The twelve narratives are grouped into four sets of three, each set has relatively tight connections with the others in that set, but the four sets are connected sometimes in tangential ways. Each narrative is fully and beautifully told, centring on a black woman but with a lively and diverse cast of supporting characters - sometimes generations of that character’s family, sometimes friends, sometimes employers or offspring.
Each of the twelve characters is sufficiently different to maintain interest and avoid any blurring between them. They range, for example, from a lesbian theatre dramatist, to a city banker, to a Northumbrian farmer, to a narcissistic schoolteacher. Some of the characters are more likeable than others, some of them are happier than others. Taken together, though, they challenge a number of pre-conceptions: e.g. that black skin was not seen in Britain before the Windrush; that the black community is somehow homogenous; that black kids have lower expectations than their white counterparts. We see in great detail the complexity of the backgrounds of many Black Britons; the systematic stifling of ambition and opportunity that Black kids experience; and the power of familial expectations and the perils of wanting something different from life.
Girl, Woman, Other does have a couple of codas. The first is an after party following the opening of a play by Amma, the star of the first narrative. This brings together some of the characters and offers an opportunity for some set-piece politicking. If the novel has a weak spot, this is it. The second coda is much more powerful, as one of the characters discovers her true heritage. The reader will already have worked this out, but the salient feature is more the character’s reaction than the actual fact of it.
This remarkable collection of narratives is dauntingly long to start with, but after the first two or three stories it is very hard to put down. It is written in a compelling, immediate style (almost verse like with line spacing and lack of capital letters), and gives a very convincing insight into lives that the reader might never have previously noticed. This is an important work that gives a better understanding of our country, and an appreciation that the story is still being written.
Lanny is a young boy, growing up in an ordinary village with ordinary people - underneath which Dead Papa Toothwort, an ancient burry man, lies listening to the inane conversation above.
The novel is narrated from various viewpoints: Lanny’s Mum, Lanny’s Dad, and Pete, an elderly and accomplished artist. The narratives all centre around the relationship between the narrator and Lanny, leading the reader to imagine this some kind of reminiscence about the formative years of a now great man. And interspersed, we have the bored interjections of Dead Papa Toothwort who presents individual lines of conversations one might hear down the pub (somewhat irritatingly presented in word-art form that is mightily difficult to read on a Kindle).
So, for the first half of then novel, we see an emerging friendship between Lanny and Pete as the old painter tries to help Lanny to develop his own artistic skills. Lanny’s parents are happy with this as it provides free childcare, allowing them to pursue their own interests (Lanny’s Mum is a crime writer and Lanny’s Dad works long hours in London).
Then, half way through, Dead Papa Toothwort decides to roll the dice and make something interesting happen in the village. This, apparently, is something he is wont to do every century or so. And Lanny disappears. Fingers point, gossip spreads. People question Pete’s motives; they question Lanny’s Mum and Dad’s parenting techniques. Kids at school who ostracised Lanny start to get remorseful...
There is something bucolic about the novel. It blends folk tradition with very current withering about house prices and commuting. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Reservoir 13/The Reservoir Tapes in that although Lanny is the glue that binds the story together, it is more of an observational drama about village life and personal interests.
Lanny is stunningly well told; the lines drip from the page and the reader is left wanting more. The ending is almost satisfying.
Booker longlisted. Surely a shoo in for the shortlist (or more?)
I have been a fan of John Lanchester for a number of years and The Wall is every bit as good as his previous works.
Ostensibly set in a future world where sea levels have risen to catastrophic levels, the Wall is in fact a wry commentary on present days right wing politics around the world and fear of immigration.
Kavanagh is a young man embarking on his two years of national service patrolling the Wall - a high concrete structure built around the British coastline to keep the sea - and The Others - away. Kavanagh is a typical late teen in dreaming of completing his service and working his way up into the elite. Just so long as he can complete his national service without mishap, either being killed in action against invading parties of Others or, even worse, being put to sea to balance out an Other who might have made it across the Wall.
We see, through Kavanagh’s uncritical eyes, that not only does there seem to be plenty of space and resource in Britain, but there is even a problem with low birth rates. Despite this, the drawbridge has well and truly been pulled up because “Britain is Full”. Those Others who do make it in are only allowed to work as Help (essentially servants) in a Gastarbeiter role. Despite their apparently necessary work, they will never become full citizens.
As the novel develops, Kavanagh has an opportunity to travel and see different perspectives; he is able to see the adulation given to the Defenders by ordinary citizens who imagine some kind of noble selflessness among the conscripted men and women; he sees the life of comfort of the older generation who created the system; and ultimately he sees the other side of the Wall.
As a novel, the Wall is pacy and readable - if perhaps the non-Kavanagh characters are a little under-developed. But as a satire, it is powerful. It exposes the economic and moral lack of justification for the current fashion for isolationism. Yes, that means Brexit, it means Stop The Boats, it means Love it or Leave, it means the current predilection with finding the enemies within and stripping them of their citizenship.
The Wall is a very necessary novel for our times that will pose (and leave unanswered) many questions about loyalty, identity, patriotism and xenophobia. And it is absolutely not about climate change. *****
Speak No Evil is a difficult read but well worth the effort.
Niru is a final-year high schooler in Washington DC. His parents are ambitious, wealthy Nigerians for whom appearances matter. They live in the best neighbourhood, rub shoulders with Washington's movers and shakers, invest in art - but still hanker after the old country and their corrupt relatives. Niru himself is athletic and bright, holds an early offer for Harvard, and the future is his for the taking.
In a coming of age story, Niru finds himself adored by his classmate Meredith, but is unable to reciprocate. Niru faces up to the fact that he is not a ladies' man and, encouraged by Meredith, he starts to explore his sexuality. This does not sit well with Niru's family culture.
The first two thirds of the book is narrated by Niru. His voice is fantastic, wise, witty but always conscious of the unwritten limitations imposed on people with brown skin. He portrays individuality and ambition in a society where he knows people of colour are perceived to be homogenous. he accepts the respect of his classmates for his ability but knows he will never achieve their friendship. We share Niru's frustration, but also feel frustration at his acceptance of the limitations it imposes. We also sense his rebellion against the culture to which his parents adhere. Niru has a conflict between his own westernisation and a world that is unwilling to accept it.
The final third of the book is narrated by Meredith, whose voice is less compelling. Meredith is white and her family is privileged; her father hankers after a seat in the Supreme Court. But her family finds itself at odds with the new values introduced by President 45. Her narrative is a rage against the world, especially the world that is being built in Washington right at the moment. She is angry at the level of acceptance of injustice and at the way she is compelled to play a role in that world based on her race and her wealth.
The novel is particularly challenging to read because it eschews traditional narrative and traditional dialogue. Time jumps around. Parts are written in the here and now; then there will be a jump over a significant time period whose events we must infer from future narrative. Conversation is not reported with traditional punctuation, making it hard to follow, especially when occasionally blended with Nigerian patois. It is hard to grasp the significance of major plot details delivered as single references in what appears to be throwaway dialogue. However, it is worth coming to the novel with a clear head to follow the plot - the effort really does repay itself. The language and imagery are brilliant, Iweala creates a world with perfection. Much of the imagery centres around colour, particularly black and white, light and dark.
The political messages from the book are loud and clear . When Meredith's narrative takes over, sometimes the messages are too clear, being contained in sections of polemic. That is a bit if a shame after Niru's gentle narrative where the reader is trusted to draw his or her own conclusions from the events and ideas.
The Achilles Heel of the book, though, is the pacing and structure. Essentially the denouement comes at the one third mark; the rest feels like a really padded "what happened next" section that you get at the end of some TV movies. Parts of it are necessary to give a second perspective on Niru and his family - but perhaps some other structure could have left the emotional punch to near the end. The actual ending, when we get there, feels anti-climactic.
So Speak No Evil is a short, literary novel that has much to commend it, but it just doesn't feel quite as satisfying as the ideas and writing talent had led this reader to expect. Still very much worth picking up, but five stars have become only three and a half.
Ifiok is a journalist at a government radio station in Lagos, Nigeria. He has a lovely girlfriend, Yetunde, dreams of entering his radio series The River into the BBC Africa drama competition and his boss seems to like him. He seems well set up.
From a narrative perspective, this allows Ifiok to travel freely around the city, observing different vignettes of everyday life - whether in big business or dramas on the street with begging scams and petty thievery. Ifiok himself is part of the emergent middle class, dining in restaurants and buying Yetunde designer dresses, but not in the same league as the army generals driving around in their high black people carriers. And these vignettes are well told, colourful and often amusing.
What is lacking, though, is an over-arching narrative thread. At first it looks as though it might be a quest for funding for The River as government funding for it is cut. This could have lead to all sorts of nefarious schemes and scams, motivated by some form of community spirit. But the story line fizzles out. Instead, Ifiok returns to his family home in the oilfields and has a think about his love life. It feels like the wrong choice of narrative direction.
Nevertheless, this is a colourful, entertaining and short read. Three and a half stars perhaps nudging slightly on the side of four.