In which I discuss recent reading which deserves particular attention: two novels, spanning an African immigrant’s contemporary experience in London and a trio of English sisters’ experience of the interwar years, and a graphic memoir spanning a young boy’s experiences in Syria, France and Libya.
In Harare North (2009), Brian Chikwava’s experience of a Zimbabwean immigrant’s experience of London, England is complex, simultaneously monotonous and heightened. On one hand, he is ducking the authorities and looking to disappear temporarily, while he earns enough to buy himself safety back home, so there is a relentless tension, seeking and maintaining off-the-books work and satisfying the needs of various interested parties. On the other hand, there are swaths of time in which he is engaged with the banal activities of survival, housing and meals and changing relationships. Much of his experience is grim and hard, but his sharp intelligence keeps the reader engaged in his struggle, alternately wincing and grinning. “I sleep in my clothes and shoes because I have make big vow never to allow any intruder to set they eyes on me without my clothes on. If you is taken by surprise, once your enemy see you in them shabby underpants, the humiliation is big; you is two times set back and is fighting from position of big disadvantage.”
Mary Hocking’s Good Daughters (1984) is the first in the trilogy about the Fairley sisters (Louise, Alice and Claire), which I am reading this winter with Danielle. It opens in 1933, with the statement that growing up between the wars, under the shadow of the swastika, one was not always aware of that shadow. The novels considers a variety of ways in which people feel out of step, with the times and with one another. One man’s “present had never been other people’s present”; one woman’s horizons weren’t not limited, “just different from those of other people”. One married couple exists “as though two wrong bits of film had been joined together”. And a woman is “saddened by the inability to life to match itself to the grandeur of her needs”. An astute observer, Mary Hocking allows readers to peer into many characters’ lives and, even when lonely and isolated, one is comforted by tea and toast, currant buns and treacle puddings, shawls and cup-cakes.
Riad Sattouf’s L’arabe du future/The Arabe of the Future (2014) considers the artist’s early childhood, years spent in France and Libya and Syria. The colour palette is bold, with a single colour tinting the panels for chunks of pages, just as Riad moves from starkly different environments over the years. The boy’s experiences are sometimes visceral and other times philosophical; sometimes he gets pounded by his cousins and sometimes he admires various birds and savours mulberries. Most of the panels include both context above and dialogue below, which keeps readers informed and engaged. And the sensory detail provided, whether the nostalgia which the adults in his life attach to specific foods or landscapes, or the smell of relatives’ clothing, invites readers to participate in the story beyond the page and panel. Like Marcelino Truong, Marjane Satrapi and Lorina Mapa, Riad Sattouf pulls readers into his childhood, which he continues to explore in another three volumes: I’ll definitely read on!