At our end of year bookclub we dined at the Boat Shed Cafe in Nelson and acknowledged how lucky we were to be able to do so. While we recalled our bookclubs hosted by Zoom and philosophised about the state of the world, we also expressed our gratitude in having books to entertain and to distract us; and we reiterated how lucky we are to live in New Zealand where Covid-19 was far less threatening than in other nations and now is basically non-existent. To our readers around the world who are still experiencing the effects of the pandemic we offer our thoughts and aroha and hope that our mental wanderings might offer you some entertainment and distraction, just for a moment.
It was a year of emotive readings, in which, weirdly, the books did mimic the uncertainty of world events. Immigration crises, alternative realities in which humanity was at risk, and tales of lost family members and hardship abounded. The use of unnamed or faceless characters featured several times, allowing us, the reader, to imagine ourselves in the predicament of the characters, and therefore creating a much greater emotional tie to the events.
In analysing the year there were certainly some common thoughts and opinions voiced:
Here are some of our other thoughts:
Sonya: The old man – The Memory Police
Jo: Katy – Rules of Civility
Rachel: Saul Adler – The Man Who Saw Everything
Becks: Girl – Lost Children Archive
Jodie: Katy – Rules of Civility
Most memorable setting:
Sonya: The ghetto – Driving to Treblinka
Jo: The house – Memory Police
Rachel: 1930s New York – Rules of Civility
Becks: Zebra Crossing – The Man Who Saw Everything
Jodie: The scrap yard – Educated
Best revelation (spoiler alert):
Sonya: There was only one accident – The Man Who Saw Everything
Jo & Jodie: How intense the hatred of Jews was – Driving to Treblinka
Rachel: The Rules of Civility was a real document – Rules of Civility
Becks: The real life controversy around the publication of American Dirt
Runner up best book:
Sonya: Lost Children Archive
Jo: Rules of Civility
Rachel: Rules of Civility
Becks: Normal People
Jodie: Norwegian Wood
Book of the year:
Sonya: The Memory Police
Jo: Driving To Treblinka
Rachel: Lost Children Archive
Becks: Lost Children Archive
Jodie: Rules of Civility
Chosen by Becks
A family’s road trip across America collides with an immigration crisis at the southwestern border.
✚ “Lost Children Archive is not purely about immigrants crossing borders. More, it reflects on the histories of immigrants that have been lost by society’s refusal to embrace cultural uniqueness.
Our mothers teach us to speak, and the world teaches us to shut up.
“To highlight her point, Luiselli cleverly constructs her book with a narrative that itself sometimes captures events and sometimes allows them to fade into meaninglessness.
“The unnamed parents capture sounds for a living and are headed cross country on a road trip with their two children (referred to as boy and girl), each working a different soundscape project.
“The sounds captured, the waning silences, the awkward interactions amongst the family members and their varying memories of the same experience all demonstrate how difficult it is to tell a story from one person’s perspective or with only one mode of language. Ultimately the narrative structure suggests an inventoried collection of fragments and experiences is the only way to accurately represent a moment in time .
“To showcase this, the story changes narrators several times. Ma recalls the journey in an intellectual, emotional and overthinking way; boy challenges her assertions, recalling the same events in a logical, realist manner; whereas girl remembers the entire trip as a series of sounds. The father, true to his self-absorbed characterisation, does not contribute to the narrative.
“However, Luiselli wants us to know that no matter how many fragments the mother collects, no matter how many ways in which she tries to tell the stories, it is the political systems that will win: immigrants will be treated with disdain, their stories, histories and beliefs will not be valued nor kept. Historical narratives must be in the hands of many, she intones, not just of a few select powers.
The book also offers a juxtaposition between creating new histories and relying on existing texts, showing how the past and present are constantly intersecting and can provide a muddling effect to the remembered truth of history.
Conversations, in a family, become linguistic archaeology. They build the world we share, layer it in a palimpsest, give meaning to our present and future. The question is, when, in the future, we dig into our intimate archive, replay our family tape, will it amount to a story? A soundscape?
✚ “I have both read and listened to this book, and as a story about sounds, both offer a unique perspective. I loved this multi-dimensionality, especially as the book is about how accurate histories should be captured in many different formats. Every voice is deserving in the documentation of history and the author makes this evident.
“I particularly loved girl’s retelling of their trip as a series of echoes in the Audible book. It is so eerie, and stimulates a roller coaster of emotion, like reliving the entire book again in condensed format.
“The novel’s language is slick and considered. I found myself often pausing to either marvel over beautiful sentences or to consider challenges to conventional ideas and constructs. I absolutely loved Lost Children Archive and have thought about it a lot since first reading it.” – Rachel
✚ “I can’t say I really enjoyed the book all that much.This was primarily due to the mother’s narrative which was too pretentious and overwrought for me. I much preferred the son’s logical narration style but by the time this was introduced, it was unable to recover my interest in the story.
“My view of the novel vastly improved following the bookclub research, when the reason for all of the different perspectives became apparent. I did enjoy the educational aspect in regards to learning about the Mexican people’s awful journeys and the risks they take to cross the US border. The portrayal of the horrible consequences to immigrants’ lives but also to their histories was extremely moving.” – Jo
✚ “Lost Children Archive was my runner up book of 2020, for a mixed bag of reasons, and not because it was a ‘perfect’ novel for me. In fact, there were a few things I didn’t really like about it. Truth be told the weightiness of the mother’s narration was at times too much, too contrived. I wanted reprieve from constant metaphors and analogies and double meanings. And I didn’t like the perfect plot, which felt to me like one driven by the need for metaphors, analogies, and double meanings.
“But at the same time, I was blown away by how cleverly and beautifully the book was written. The lost children touched me, moved me. The lost stories, blankness, emptiness and the sense of touching a void, were all feelings I experienced whilst reading this book. The deep, deep sadness and loss, the pain of parent separated from child, or the death of a child, a lost child. The refreshing simplicity of the boys narrative, in contrast with the mothers? That was genius. A beautiful book”. – Sonya
Knopf Publishing Group
It’s an understatement to say 2020 is a bit of a strange year! Covid-19 and the resulting politics around controlling it both unites and divides us. While some people reach out to neighbours, colleagues, families for support, some feel their ‘otherness’ and loneliness more distinctly than ever. It is a trying time for many unsure of how they fit in.
While this year’s published books do not yet have Covid storylines (am sure we’ll see those soon) the Booker shortlisters do portray this sense of otherness, plus a hopefulness for the future. Marginalised people, poverty stricken families, war-affected communities and those who consider themselves outsiders feature strongly in this year’s shortlist.
For example: This Mournable Body features a woman stuck between past and present, attempting to rebuild her life in post-colonial Zimbabwe; Shuggie Bain‘s eponymous protagonist is a young gay man in a working class Glaswegian tenement struggling for acceptance; Hirut is a female warrior in The Shadow King, fighting amongst men; Wallace is a black, gay biochemist struggling for acceptance at an academic level in Real Life; Burnt Sugar tells the story of a young girl brought up in a commune and on the streets now trying to care for her dementia-ridden mother; The New Wilderness features a number of outsiders trying to adapt in a new environment on a dying planet.
But rather than depict them as outsiders, the formidable writing styles of these authors sees these protagonists portrayed as real people. Most are not over wrought, or over written, nor have moralistic opinions to shove down our throats. We appreciate that this group of authors let their characters simply tell their incredible stories then leave it up to us, the reader, to develop our own opinions on how this represents the real world, how it affects or involves us and what, if any, actions we feel obliged to take.
As Suzy wondered in one of her reviews, when have we “othered” people without realising? Each of these stories provides so much food for thought about how we interact with people and how our interactions can affect those people, and how small adaptions to our behaviours can have the largest of effects.
We both agree that while initially the list was a surprise, it ended up being a year where most nominees evoked a real sense of the world.
I say most because there is one title we feel does not fit. The New Wilderness is topical, we acknowledge that, but its characters who feel like characters and the lack of reason in its plot works against it. We struggle to see how it could have been shortlisted amongst these other developed titles. Therefore, it is out of the running for us. (Hilary Mantel must be wondering even more so how she was left off this list.)
As we lounge about in our rented Thorndon villa in Wellington, we agree we’d like to pick multiple winners. However, unlike the Booker judges of 2019 we are prepared to make a tough call. Here are our thoughts:
This Mournable Body: a synchronised depiction of a country and its people learning to adapt to colonisation and independence, without judgment of the mistakes they make along the way and ending with opportunities not results
Shuggie Bain: a true representation of alcoholism, poverty and sexuality on a struggling Glaswegian family without pointing any fingers of blame nor nicely sewing up the conclusions
The Shadow King: a factually based retelling of a time when women were warriors but still people with successes and failings, a duty of care for those around them and a blood thirsty desire to live
Burnt Sugar: a study of human nature and mother-daughter relationships where resentfulness and co-dependence mar an ability to see clearly, and where the outcome is the best that can be hoped for
Real Life: a very real account of the lives of marginalised peoples, told in a matter-of-fact manner without judgement or sentimentality
So which comes out on top for each of us?
Suzy chose The Shadow King. “This novel somehow transported me from the rural Waikato to 1930s Ethiopia with complete ease! I was absolutely drawn in to The Shadow King and relished reading a book with a storyline unlike anything I’d come across before. Amazingly compelling and fresh writing – I loved it.”
Rachel chose Burnt Sugar. “I loved the ever-evolving relationship between Tara and Antara – their love for one another, mixed with their mutual contempt was very convincing. The slow drip feed of their toxic past added to the intrigue plus there was a nice little plot twist. Slow-burning, fictional studies of human nature are definitely my type of book.”
Rachel (favourites in order 1-6)
Burnt Sugar – Anvi Doshi
The Shadow King – Maaza Mengiste
Real Life – Brandon Taylor
This Mournable Body – Tsitsi Dangarembga
Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart
The New Wilderness – Diane Cook
Suzy (favourites in order 1-6)
The Shadow King – Maaza Mengiste
Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart
Real Life – Brandon Taylor & Burnt Sugar – Anvi Doshi
This Mournable Body – Tsitsi Dangarembga
The New Wilderness – Diane Cook
A disillusioned native woman re-establishes her life in post-colonial Zimbabwe.
✚ “Finding out about halfway through This Mournable Body that it was the third book in a trilogy was useful to know as there was certainly the feeling that the Zimbabwean war that was often referred to was the ‘real’ story, whereas we were learning more about its aftermath and the impact on the character Tambudzai and her family. I’m thinking maybe the first two books dealt with the war and its politics more comprehensively?”
“The book wasn’t without violence and there was a constant underlying feeling of menace that hovered on the edges of the story and threatened to spill over in many ways. Tambudzai spent most of the time on edge and was constantly negotiating with herself whether she would deal with issues in flight or fight mode.
“I genuinely felt for Tambudzai and her experiences and its clear this book can standalone with no need to read the preceding two books, however I think I would have got more out of it had I had a bit more background.” – Suzy
Your umbilical cord is buried on the homestead; in the empty space that widens within at every step, you feel it tugging.
✚ “This Mournable Body is the story of Tambudzai, a woman who has lived through the long and devastating guerrilla war between the white Rhodesian army and native black nationalists. Now the 1990s, the nation has gained independence and is trying to rebuild itself, as is Tambudzai (Tambu).
“However, it is clear Tambu is in the midst of a personal or post-traumatic crisis as she jumps from one experience to the other, making observations of her new fragmented environment and attempting to find purpose, but hurting people and herself along the way.
“The book is jarring but hopeful and its anti-hero Tambu is an emotive parallel for a country with a new and promising future. Zimbabwe, and Tambu, must look for opportunities in its new-look reality and acknowledge that the past cannot be erased, but must be respected as something that will continue to shape them.
“Told in second person, as though Tambu is trying to distance herself from her past, ensures we, the readers, are intimately invested. The episodic wanderings of Tambu can seem a little disruptive to the flow of the plot but if you remember her experiences are also notations of a post-colonial era’s history, the plot is more meaningful.” – Rachel
Set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, The Shadow King portrays the first real conflict of World War II, casting light on the women soldiers who were left out of the historical record.
✚ “Early on in The Shadow King I had to google “Italian invasion of Ethiopia 1930s” proving yet again my historical knowledge is slightly lacking. It was such an unexpected event and I wasn’t sure if it was even real (nearly as bad as when I was teacher aiding in a Year 12 English class and learned about the Warsaw ghetto thanks to the students reading The Pianist) .
“Well yep the invasion sure was real and Maaza Mengiste takes you to the absolute heart of it. This book was at times terrifying, at times exhilarating and then a lot of the time it was just very sad. There was little joy and not much relief from the absolute onslaught of overwhelming events.
“Reading the note from the author at the end about her personal connection to the story was shocking. I read this while it was longlisted and was rapt to see it on the shortlist. At the time of writing this I’ve read no other shortlisters, but I’ll be very surprised to read one that tops this.” – Suzy
To be in the presence of our emperor is to stand before the sun. You must respect his power to give you life and to burn you alive.
✚ “Stories of female contributions to war efforts are few and far between. Usually the women are carers or victims or fictional superwomen. The Shadow King is different. It tells the story of Hirut, a young Ethiopian woman who goes from lowly servant to proud warrior during the 1935 Italian invasion.
“The story has a base in the author’s own family history and this attachment is obvious in the realistic portrayal of the characters and their war-time experiences. At no time did they seem over-written, and the war activities had the right measure of atrocity and hopefulness. Although I knew nothing of this conflict prior to reading this book, I was quickly lured into this story and captivated throughout.
“Hirut, an orphan seeking meaning in life, seemed to me a symbol of many people, many cultures, many communities and though I was left feeling shocked, I was also satisfied at the completeness of the story.” – Rachel
W W Norton Company
A group of strangers escape a polluted city and learn to live in the wild as part of a study
✚ “This dystopian-type novel features a polluted and over populated city and a location which is the only place in which nature still exists: the Wilderness State. A group of people, led by Bea and her daughter Agnes, live a nomadic life there as part of a nameless study.
“There are a lot of topical themes raised in this book, about environmental concern, our relationship with nature, social change, mother-daughter relationships, what our children will inherit from us, and back-to-basics survival. Plot markers revealed early on were portrayed with a no-nonsense sensibility and brutal acceptance about life and death in a harsh environment.
“However it soon become apparent that there were many holes in the plot, too many to mention here. Plus I felt let down by the characterisation. Stereotyping and dramatisation led to unbelievable interactions and I just couldn’t relate to the characters, nor accept some of the actions they took. I felt completely distant from the story about half way through and only finished the book because I had to for Bookerthon.” – Rachel
A story of love and betrayal between a woman and her mother.
✚ “Though dementia is the vehicle for the plot, the real story in Burnt Sugar is the toxic co-dependent relationship between Tara and her daughter Antara. Despite Antara’s sense of injustice at her mother’s less than acceptable parenting, she still feels responsible for her care when she begins losing her memory. Now all Antara has of her past is her own memory, which in Doshi’s unsentimental writing style, is not totally reliable in itself. For this reason Antara is never able to reconcile her un-challenged thoughts and feelings and therefore unable to forgive or accept her mother’s wild behaviour: in the commune; with various men; begging on the street.
“It is a story that starts of slowly but quickly gathers momentum until the pages of toxicity between mother and daughter cannot be put down. It’s a bit like watching a train wreck, horrifying but you know you won’t look away. It is addictive and compelling and a truthful, unglamorous account of love, memory and dependency. If you appreciate literary studies of human nature, try this one out.” – Rachel
✚ “I had been trying to come up with the word that best describes Burnt Sugar and lo and behold there it is on the cover as Fatima Bhutto calls it: “taut, unsettling, ferocious”. I would agree with all three, but especially ‘unsettling’. It wasn’t a book I was compelled to pick up to find out what was happening next as it meant I would have to experience a certain level of discomfort and yes feel unsettled. It’s a real slow-burner of a book especially compared to The Shadow King.
“Antara was a distinctive female character who revealed so much about herself I was left feeling like I was encroaching too much on her life. I almost feel relieved that I’ve finished it if that makes sense? Amazing writing and I would not be disappointed at all if this one took the Booker win.” –Suzy
A biochemistry student’s experiences of life as a gay, black man captured over one weekend
✚ “What started off as a fairly innocuous read soon became anything but. Reading Real Life after Burnt Sugar and The Shadow King I was more than ready for some shallow banter between some smart American twenty-somethings, however the eventual brutality beneath the happy accomplished veneer of the characters often made me feel sick.
“The experience of being an ‘other’ was conveyed in such a raw and authentic way made me reflect on the times where I might have ‘othered’ people without realising. This was another very uncomfortable read with not much breathing room for the reader.
“I thoroughly enjoyed this book and so far the shortlisted books have been amazing.” – Suzy
‘Yes, your deficiencies. I won’t say what they are. You already know. You come from a challenging background. It is unfortunate, but it is how it is.’
✚ “Wallace is a black, gay biochemistry student from Alabama who is simply trying to get ahead in his studies and find his place in a white, straight dominated world. But as he breeds nematodes in the lab and teeters on the edge of friendships he must endure a raft of prejudices, both intentional and inherent.
“In Real Life, one weekend of Wallace’s life is examined, with conversations, dinner parties, relationships and human interactions studied microscopically. What’s discovered is not just brutal honesty but an exacting portrayal of intimacy, sexuality, violence and loneliness. What’s more the weekend is replayed in a perfectly paced, delicate and nuanced writing style.
“There is no part of this book that is unbelievable, it really is a story about one person’s real life. I felt like I was right there, in every scene, observing and absorbing the lives of this group of friends. A moving experience that I sometimes hated and sometimes loved but always respected.” – Rachel
Chosen by Jodie
The memoir of one man’s coming-of-age, set during the twilight of apartheid and the tumultuous days of freedom that followed.
✚ “Born a Crime is the true story of a South African boy who starts his life under Apartheid and who feels the effects of the regime throughout his formative years. His childhood is filled with extraordinary events, an incredible mother and an abusive stepfather. Despite the consequences of these factors, the story is one of resilience, especially when one doesn’t have the resources to advance themselves. There were many people in the book who did not thrive, but Trevor’s mother wanted to show her son a different world and a different way of living. She was unique for her time and place; she was a critical thinker who knew how to make the best of situations. Not only was the book entertaining but witty too and I would highly recommend it. ” – Jodie
✚ “I learned a lot reading Born A Crime. I thought the mother was an incredible rock for her son throughout their lives under apartheid. What astounded me was how Trevor lived in no man’s land constantly – not considered black enough to be black or white enough to be white, nor brown enough to be coloured. Trevor opened my eyes to situations I wasn’t aware of before hand. For example I had always thought of the South Arican slums as a mass, not as individual people. But they have hierarchies, and dreams and desires. But Trevor did not want to be a victim and his mother was always educating him even when he didn’t realise; even when he was getting a hiding.” – Becks
✚ “Trevor Noah definitely has an interesting story to tell. However I don’t think his focus was in the right spot. His mother was a remarkable women and a snippet of some of the horrors she endures are offered at the beginning of the book. But it’s not until the end that those stories come to light, all the pages in-between filled with Noah’s petty crimes and childhood antics. This made Noah seem self-absorbed – the story should have been hers not his. Plus the lack of plot continuity created a stop-start effect that interrupted my interest in the story.” – Rachel
✚ “I enjoyed Born A Crime, finding it entertaining and informative at the same time. For me it was a memoir that held a good balance between personal anecdote, social-cultural commentary and historical insight into South Africa and apartheid. I think it was blended well with humour and a little irreverance. I was uplifted by a sense of hopefulness and admiration about the author’s Mum and Trevor Noah himself. It is a read I’ll recommend to others and my kids when they are a little older. A new (to me) view on apartheid and race relations. Humbling” – Sonya
✚ “This story of a South African childhood was witty as well as educational. Trevor dealt with situations that most children would never experience with humour and directness. The book’s chapters were sectioned by themes. It did sometimes feel disjointed with the abrupt stop-start of the themes but it was an interesting way to structure the book, rather than the traditional chronological presentation. I thoroughly enjoyed this story and would happily recommend it to a friend.” – Jo