In which there is talk of the slim stories which have travelled with me within the city, while bulkier volumes stayed home.
Amitav Ghosh’s Flood of Fire and Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1are awkward travelling companions.
As are some of the skinnies in my current stack, like Iris Murdoch’s The Unicorn, which seems designed to be read somewhere other-than-here, but its fine print requires a particular kind of attention.
Travelling with books: a delicate business.
It’s the kind of April morning that would be more comfortably spent indoors but the ice-storm is still fresh in my mind and I am overly eager to be outdoors; I am sitting on a bench overlooking Lake Ontario, with my back to the dog-walkers and senior-citizens who regularly travel this route in the mornings, one hand pressed around a thermos filled with tea, out of habit only, as the outside of the canister is cool, the other pressing the spine of my book downwards in the occasional breeze.
The Finest Supermarket in Kabul presents three narratives, each of which connects with the bombing of a grocery store which caters to shoppers with a taste for Western brands. Who knew that you could buy Nutella in Afghanistan? Ele Pawelski knows and she could give you directions; the human rights projects she’s managed in danger-pay locales have provided a wealth of experiences which she now explores in fiction.
Here, readers meet Merza (who has receiving death threats since he began working in politics, a decision as unpopular with his parents as it is with his political opponents), Alec (a western journalist who has come to Kabul against his editor’s wishes, fatigued by his assignment with an American platoon and in search of a different kind of story) and Elyssa (who has toted her guitar through Kenya and South Sudan before we meet her in Kabul, where she, too, is working and buying toothpaste).
Entering the daily routines of this trio brings readers into everyday life in 2011 Kabul, which includes ever-present tension and conflict but also a single incident of violence which impacts all three characters and other community members in some expected, some unexpected and some unresolved ways which add to the story’s believability (the back cover explains it was inspired by real events). The story is quickly immersive and each character’s experiences are distinct and credible; the narrative style is orderly and deliberate, which might be felt as either a source of stability in its contrast to the chaos in the story or a distancing effect.
In early May, the weather daily varies so that I am either over-dressed or under-dressed, based on my attempt to correct an error made in judgment on the previous outing, so today I am chilly and without a jacket, but warmed by making the acquaintance of Morayo da Silva in Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (2016).
Born in Nigeria and now living in San Francisco, Morayo travels around the city with curiosity and determination. Readers meet her and inhabit her perspective alone, at first, so enjoy her perspective on neighbourhood shops and farmers’ markets (favourite blooms and foods considered in some detail). In time, however, the narrative expands to include a variety of voices, which affords readers the opportunity to contrast their impressions of Morayo with others’ observations.
We first, for instance, receive her philosophy about her home library, which seems marvellous and considered.
“As you will see, I no longer organize my books alphabetically, or arrange them by colour of spine, which was what I used to do. Now the books are arranged according to which characters I believe ought to be talking to each other. That’s why Heart of Darkness is next to Le Regard du Roi, and Wide Sargasso Sea sits directly above Jane Eyre. The latter used to sit next to each other but then I thought it best to redress the old colonial imbalance and give Rhys the upper hand – upper shelf.”
But when a younger friend visits Moraya’s apartment in her absence, she views the place as being in disarray and comments on the fact that the two women had spent time not long ago to painstakingly alphabetize her entire collection and now books are scattered everywhere and shelved erratically, some with their spines facing the back of the shelf and others damaged and the collection in turmoil.
Being both within and without Moraya’s perspective offers readers her company and a view on her friends’ and acquaintances’ relationships with her which, in a very slim volume, leaves us both feeling included and feeling as though we’d like to know her better.