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 History of Violence by Edouard Louis, translated by Lorin Stein
The follow on to the autobiographical novel of The End of Eddy and Eddy is now living in Paris and heading to his apartment after a Christmas Eve meet with friends for Dinner. He is stopped in the street by a stranger and while Eddy tries to get away, eventually they both go back to hi with the night ending in Reda raping, assaulting and trying to murder Eddy.
The novel deals with the event and aftermath, told through both Eddy's point of view and from listening to his sister tell her husband about what happened.
This I found to be a very engrossing, heartfelt, afflicting read about the trauma of a traumatic event, trying to tell it to the French police the incident but responses of racism as the perpetrator was of North African descent, trying to deal with friends and family about the incident. The narration of the event takes on a kind of slow motion in it.
Definitely not a book for everyone but I did feel that despite the difficult subject of the novel, that it was an excellent, affecting and absorbing read.
* * * * *
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.
* * * * *
How's The Pain is an odd little French novella. It opens with a death, and then we spend the rest of the piece trying to work out how we got there.
Broadly, the novella features Simon Marechall, who works in pest control, hiring Bernard, the indolent son of Anais - a woman who pretends to run a shop to mask her own inactivity - to drive him to and from one last job. On the way they meet various people and discover more about each other. There is an air of menace throughout and one fears for Bernard. Bernard is intriguing; optimistic, very selective in the application of his moral scruples, and desperately in need of a life away from his mother. Anais, too, casts a long shadow despite featuring only briefly. Her belief that the world owes her a living is staggering; she refuses to carry money and resents even the one night Bernanrd is away from home. Simon is thinly drawn; he seems not to have much meaningful past and really just plays a role of listening to Bernard.
Not much happens. It's a bit like Pulp Fiction where the two guys spend time nonchalantly discussing life, the universe and Royales with Cheese in between acts of evil. Here in France we have those conversations in servoes and campsites rather than in diners and parking lots, but the idea is the same.
How's The Pain bills itself as a full novel. It isn't. It is a competent novella but it lacks the depth and character development of a novel. It does create an atmosphere of menace but doesn't do much with it. Being a French work, set in France, it is too easy to categorise it as Noir, but the comic repartee should really disqualify it from that category. I think this is the kind of book that a publisher would decribe as “hard to place”. It's the second Pascal Garnier work I have read; both were OK but not hing to suggest I should seek out a third.