“Exit West” by Moshin Hamid

“The news in those days was full of war and migrants and nativists, and it was full of fracturing too, of regions pulling away from nations, and cities pulling away from hinterlands, and it seemed that as everyone was coming together everyone was also moving apart. Without borders nations appeared to be becoming somewhat illusory, and people were questioning what role they had to play. Many were arguing that smaller units made more sense, but others argued that smaller units could not defend themselves.”

 

D6F76448-B590-47FF-B391-8D17A5AE0EC1In an unnamed city erupting in chaos and political upheaval, Saeed and Nadia meet in a night school class and are quickly bound to one another. Saeed is quiet, traditional, loyal; Nadia is bold, adventuresome, courageous.

“[Saeed] was an independent-minded, grown man, unmarried, with a decent post and a good education, and as was the case in those days in his city with most independent-minded, grown men, unmarried, with decent posts and good educations, he lived with his parents.”

“Nadia’s experiences during her first months as a single woman living on her own did, in some moments, equal or even surpass the loathsomeness and dangerousness that her family had warned her about. But she had a job at an insurance company, and she was determined to survive, and so she did. … She learned how to dress for self-protection, how best to deal with aggressive men and with the police, and with aggressive men who were the police, and always to trust her instincts about situations to avoid or to exit immediately.”

Though both are deeply affected by their city and the changing winds around them, Nadia’s life, in my opinion, seems thoroughly exhausting; despite her boldness, she lives each day on high alert, hidden behind black robes.

Nadia and Saeed’s budding relationship is circumscribed by strict gender roles and cultural expectations; it is also, in some sense, accelerated by the chaos around them.

“Saeed was certain he was in love. Nadia was not certain what exactly she was feeling, but she was certain it had force. Dramatic circumstances, such as those in which they and other new lovers in the city now found themselves, have a habit of creating dramatic emotions, and furthermore the curfew served to conjure up an effect similar to that of a long-distance relationship, and long-distance relationships are well known for their potential to heighten passion, at least for a while, just as fasting is well known to heighten one’s appreciation for food.”

Eventually deciding they must flee their city, the couple seeks the help of an ‘agent’, who sells them access to a rumored door. These doors – literal gates that seem to subvert space and time – allow those who pass through them to arrive in another, far away place.  Saeed and Nadia, for instance, end up first on a Greek island, where their sense of national identity and their understanding of the scope of global immigration face steep learning curves.

“They walked away from the beach club and in the lee of a hill they saw what looked like a refugee camp, with hundreds of tents and lean-tos and people of many colors and hues – many colors and hues but mostly falling within a band of brown that ranged from dark chocolate to milky tea – and these people were gathered around fires that burned inside upright oil drums and speaking in a cacophony that was the languages of the world, what one might hear if one were a communications satellite, or a spymaster tapping into a fiber-optic cable under the sea.”

Moshin Hamid speaks compellingly about the interconnectedness of the world through blended borders, periodic “asides”, and the literal doors through time and space. The asides are “meanwhile” interludes, offering a few paragraphs which hover over a refugee moment elsewhere in the world, but which lack context and resolution. In the end, I understood the purpose of these interludes as a constant reminder of the global nature of these issues, but didn’t find them particularly necessary or hugely effective.

The concept of the literal doors as portals through space and time, however, were an absolute stroke of genius. Though access to the doors is limited, passage seems to be physically taxing, and crossing requires enormous trust and hope in an unknown destination, the doors offer a bit of a “deus ex machina” solution to the problems of emigrating. With these doors, Hamid is able to shift the emphasis away from the journey of immigration and onto the upheaval and battle that comes after the physical journey has been made. Hamid makes clear the destructive force of emigrating on the migrant herself, who must leave everything she knows behind; “[W]hen we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.” 

Hamid also lays bare the nationalist, isolationist attitudes of those living in the ‘destination’ countries. He shows not only the brutality and wrong-headedness of these tendencies, but also their futility. Hamid’s solutions, as he sees them, are more along the lines of apocalypse averted rather than utopian plurality.

“But a week passed. And then another. And then the natives and their forces stepped back from the brink. Perhaps they had decided they did not have it in them to do what would have needed to be done, to corral and bloody and where necessary slaughter the migrants, and had determined that some other way would have to be found. Perhaps they had grasped that the doors could not be closed, and new doors would continue to open, and they had understood that the denial of coexistence would have required one party to cease to exist, and the extinguishing party too would have been transformed in the process, and too many native parents would not after have been able to look their children in the eye, to speak with head held high of what their generation had done. Or perhaps the sheer number of places where there were now doors had made it useless to fight in any one.”

Moshin Hamid’s brand of optimism gives me great hope. It requires not a transformation of the hearts and minds of so many, but simply an acknowledgement of realism and practicality; even if you can’t learn to love your neighbor, perhaps you can learn to accept and acknowledge their humanity. “Exit West” is brilliant, original, eerily timely, and an absolute must-read.

 

 

“Underground Fugue” by Margot Singer

“She loved the weightless lift of takeoff, the earth dropping away and spreading out below, the bunting of clouds, the sun appearing like a gift. She misses it that lightness she once felt at thirty-six thousand feet, the substance of her life below as unreal as the vanished earth beneath the strange cloud sea. But now she knows she’d mistaken the illusion of lightness for possibility. She’d thought that if you kept moving forward you could leave the past behind.”

IMG_0301Esther has fled her job, her home, and her failing marriage in New York to care for her dying mother in London. Ever since her teenage son died suddenly three years ago, life has slowly unravelled for Esther; her mother’s decline is a sad but welcome distraction. While she and her mother have never been terribly close, their quiet solitudes blend fairly smoothly as the end of Lonia’s life approaches.

“All these years, her mother has lived alone. Perhaps she too is like a mollusk, her losses calcified insider her, iridescent, out of sight. There are so many things she never speaks of: her childhood, the war, her husband’s death. If she’s lonely, she’s kept it tucked away. Her mother chews her toast, swallows, her face a crinkled shell. The silence hangs between them like a weight. Esther sighs and takes another piece of toast. If only you could tell which moment would be the last.”

Esther has built walls out of her tragedy and grief, isolating herself and floundering to discover who she is anymore. Her struggle for any sense of self and purpose after having suffered such an untenable loss is quiet and deeply affecting. At this stage, nearly three years after her son’s death, Esther is believably undone, simply a shadow of her former self but resisting hyperbolic gestures and dramatic mourning. A former piano student, Esther sees parallels in the construction of fugues, in particular, to her experience of life.

“The music explodes in climax, draws back to a ripple, whispers, sings. The theme and countertheme return again and again. They are the same each time and yet completely different, just as she is always both herself and not herself in each successive instant, no longer a small girl living in England, no longer a wife or mother, no longer even the same woman she was fifty-seven minutes earlier that very afternoon. She too has circled through the variations and returned to where she started to find that it has changed.”

Next door to Esther’s dying mother lives Javad, a neuroscientist and researcher who emigrated to London from Iran three decades earlier, and his 19 year old son, Amir. Javad’s story – first in the structure of the novel and eventually in life – is intertwined with Esther’s. Javad struggles to know is increasingly enigmatic son, a boy who keeps to himself and has taken to disappearing late into the night. Amir, we learn, has taken up urban exploration, rappelling into or scaling up abandoned architecture – defunct underground tunnels, obsolete towers, and desolate warehouses – throughout London.

“He’s lived in London his whole life, but this is a whole other world: gritty, dirty, real. It’s like that storm drain or manhole you’ve walked over a thousand times but never noticed until you knew where to look. Everything is multiple. It is strange. Even his own face, reflected in the bathroom mirror, seems a doppelganger of his former self.”

Amir sees great beauty and peace in this decrepit, hidden side of London, a town he has inhabited his whole life but one from which he may always feel separate, other. Nevermind teenage angst, Amir’s otherness is reinforced by the city around him, one that sees him as a foreigner, a Muslim. Javad, too, is acutely aware of this struggle for place, particularly in today’s hyper-vigilant, increasingly xenophobic world. He aches aver how his son is treated by his fellow citizens.

“But the brain, as he knows well, was hardwired for prejudice and suspicion. Human beings were predisposed to perceiving meaning in coincidence, to seeing outsiders as threats. And he was an outsider. A foreigner with a hard-to-pronounce name – worse, a Muslim from the Middle East. The fact that his son was born in London of an English mother didn’t matter. People looked at blokes like them and they saw what they expected to see.” 

“Underground Fugue” is a rather quiet book, full of introspection and personal guards. In this, her debut novel, Margot Singer explores alienation, loss, prejudice, and sense of self, and her explorations feel open and inconclusive in a positive sense. Singer is toying with the unknowable, with our inner fears and our ever-changing psyches. Her purpose is not to define or prescribe; the journey is the thing, and that journey is muted, honest, and diverting. “Underground Fugue” is a promising debut for a talented writer.

Thank you to Melville House for providing a complimentary Advanced Review Copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.

“Underground Fugue” is released today, April 18, 2017, in the United States.

The Works of Viet Thanh Nguyen – “The Sympathizer” and “The Refugees”

“As a nonwhite person, the General, like myself, knew he must be patient with white people, who were easily scared by the nonwhite. Even with liberal white people, one could go only so far, and with average white people one could barely go anywhere. The General was deeply familiar with the nature, nuances and internal differences of white people, as was every nonwhite person who had lived here a good number of years. We ate their food, we watched their movies, we observed their lives and psyche via television and in everyday contact, we learned their language, we absorbed their subtle cues, we laughed at their jokes, even when made at our expense, we humbly accepted their condescension, we eavesdropped on their conversations in supermarkets and the dentist’s office, and we protected them by not speaking our own language in their presence, which unnerved them. We were the greatest anthropologists ever of the American people, which the American people never knew because our field notes were written in our own language in letters and postcards dispatched to our countries of origin, where our relatives read our reports with hilarity, confusion, and awe. Although the Congressman was joking,we probably did know white people better than they knew themselves, and we certainly knew white people better than they ever knew us.”

In honor of last week’s Pulitzer Prize announcements, I read both works of fiction by previous winner, Viet Thanh Nguyen. “The Sympathizer”, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the 2017 collection of short stories, “The Refugees” were both truly brilliant.

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“The Sympathizer” begins with a dramatic monologue which hooks the reader and soon makes one feel, if not complicit, certainly sympathetic to the protagonist’s struggles.

“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of a minor natures, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess. At other times, when I reflect on how I cannot help but observe the world in such a fashion, I wonder if what I have should even be called a talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you – that is a hazard, I must confess. But in the month when this confession begins my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtues than a danger.”

The story is framed as a confession – the sympathizer, a half-French, half-Vietnamese man who was a captain in the South Vietnamese army and a communist sleeper agent, is currently imprisoned and is crafting his lengthy confession for his captors. Through his carefully curated words, we learn that the “captain” escaped Vietnam just as Saigon was falling, seeking refuge in the United States, where he continued both his role as a trusted advisor to a South Vietnamese general and also as communist sympathizer eager to further the movement.

From birth, the sympathizer has felt himself divided, a man of two minds and two identities.

“Although a misnomer when applied to me, I could hardly blame Americans for mistaking me for one of their own, since a small nation could be founded from the tropical offspring of the American GI. This stood for Government Issue, which is also what the Amerasians are. Our countrymen preferred euphemisms to acronyms, calling people like me the dust of life. More technically, the Oxford English Dictionary I consulted at Occidental revealed that I could be called a ‘natural child,’ while the law in all countries I know of hails me as its illegitimate as its illegitimate son. My mother called me her love child, but I do not like to dwell on that. In the end, my father had it right. He called me nothing at all.”

As a young adult, he translates his ability to blend and fade, to act many parts, into his work as a sympathizer. The dichotomy of the outward character he plays, however, and his inner allegiances provokes a great deal of stress and creates an insurmountable sense of isolation from nearly everyone with whom he interacts.

“[M]ost actors spent more time with their masks off than on, whereas in my case it was the reverse. No surprise, then, that sometimes I dreamed of trying to pull a mask off my face, only to realize that the mask was my face.”

As an immigrant to America himself, Nguyen has insights into the so-called immigrant experience that are, if not scathing, justifiably barbed.

“Perhaps unknown censors were reading refugee mail, looking for dejected, angry refugees who could not or would not dream the American Dream. I was careful, then, to present myself as just another immigrant, glad to be in the land where the pursuit of happiness was guaranteed in writing, which when one comes to think about it, is not such a great deal. Now a guarantee of happiness – that’s a great deal. But a guarantee to be allowed to pursue the jackpot of happiness? Merely an opportunity to buy a lottery ticket. Someone would surely win millions, but millions would surely pay for it.”

How brilliantly astute! We, as a ‘host’ nation, expect immigrants to assimilate thoroughly, to be grateful and happy, and to not interfere with our ‘native’ rights. As a culture, we tend to dismiss immigrants’ struggles to balance two cultures and two allegiances, and we have little tolerance for critiques or complaints, no matter how justified.

“Refugee, exile, immigrant – whatever species of displaced human we were, we did not simply live in two cultures, as celebrants of the great American melting pot imagined. Displaced people also lived in two time zones, the here and the there, the present and the past, being as we were reluctant time travelers. …The open secret of the clock, naked for all to see, was that we were only going in circles.”

As for this year’s book, “The Refugees”, Nguyen continues to flex his artistic muscles and exercise his remarkable voice with short stories that are simultaneously politically important and searingly funny. Again, his milieu is immigration and his characters are flawed, flailing, and fierce. The stories have a different emotional weight to them than does his novel, somehow being equally impactful while less exhausting. Perhaps this difference is a natural product of the length of the stories versus the entirety of a novel, though I have read many a short story collection that weighs quite heavily on the psyche. I think, too, that the lighter feel of the stories may be their historical remove from the war in Vietnam. Though many of his characters are refugees from war time, most of their stories are told in the present. This distance was particularly poignant because it   allowed Nguyen to expose generational differences and to peer into the long-term effects of being a refugee and a ‘foreigner’. Nguyen was also able to step into the minds of multiple characters through his stories, showing a remarkable range, from refugees who suffer survivor’s guilt and seek escape from their everyday world:

“Writing was entering into fog, feeling my way for a route from this world to the unearthly world of words, a route easier to find on some days than others.”

to those who chose to close off their memories and forget the past:

“His habit of forgetting was too deeply ingrained, as if he passed his life perpetually walking backward through a desert, sweeping away his footprints, leaving him with only scattered recollections…”

Nguyen, whose comedic handle on American culture and stereotypes is an absolute joy (even if one is the butt of his jokes), even inhabits the mind of non-Asian Americans in his stories, as with Arthur, a prejudiced man who has been the recipient of a Vietnamese man’s liver:

“He had trouble distinguishing one nationality of Asian names from another. He was also afflicted with a related, and very common, astigmatism wherein all Asians appeared the same. On first meeting the Parks, he had not thought that they were Korean, or even Japanese. Instead, he had fallen back on his default choice when confronted with a perplexing problem of identification regarding an Asian. ‘There are a lot of Chinese around here,’ Arthur said.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen is a gifted storyteller. His insight, his wit, and his winsome way with words combine to make his works brilliant, refreshing, and important.

“Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“Being a feminist is like being pregnant. You either are or you are not. You either believe fully in the equality of men and women or you do not.”

Despite her recent regretful missteps that do, indeed, give pause and are frustrating coming from an idol and an outspoken feminist (click here for background), Adichie is a writer who has earned her spot on my sacred “must read everything they write” shelf. Adichie’s renown and influence have grown immensely over the past decade, and for the most part her works have kept apace. Her novels are what she is best known for and are, to me, where her genius shines. She has used her platform as an acclaimed writer and as a forebear of the growing wave of women writers coming out of Nigeria, however, to also become an outspoken lecturer and spokeswoman on feminism. Thus, in her most recent publication, Adichie writes her second pocket-sized epistle on feminism.

Dear-Ijeawele“Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions” is framed as a letter from Adichie to one of her friends who, as a mother, is seeking advice on how to raise her daughter a feminist. The first suggestion, in fact, is more about the mother than the daughter.

“Be a full person. Motherhood is a glorious gift, but do not define yourself solely by motherhood.”

What a simple and powerful message we should refresh in ourselves and our loved ones every day.

Many of Adichie’s suggestions are around seeking equality and balances in power and in life’s roles, never accepting the traditions and status quo which flourish as they keep women subjugated. “‘Because you are a girl’ is never a reason for anything. Ever.” Adichie’s criticisms are as much for internalized misogyny as for its external manifestations. She reminds us that women are too often complicit; we have internalized the messages of misogyny and often unwittingly see the world through tainted lenses.

“Our world is full of men and women who do not like powerful women. We have been so conditioned to think of power as male that a powerful woman is an aberration. And so she is policed. We ask of powerful women: Is she humble? Does she smile? Is she grateful enough? Does she have a domestic side? Questions we do not ask of powerful men, which shows that our discomfort is not with power itself, but with women.”

As a feminist who is always seeking to broaden and strengthen her feminism and as an unrecoverable bookaholic, I was particularly drawn to Adichie’s suggestion regarding literacy.

“Teach Chizalum to read. Teach her to love books. The best way is by casual example. If she sees you reading, she will understand that reading is valuable. …Books will help her understand and question the world, help her express herself, and help her in whatever she wants to become – a chef, a scientist, a singer, all benefit from the skills that reading brings.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s words are prescriptive, but not preachy. She is full of wit and insight and “Dear Ijeawele” can (and perhaps should) be taken as a menu for everyone to read and consider as we each shape our own parenting philosophy. Adichie has clearly and consistently labeled her thoughts “suggestions”, not orders or prescriptions. She is sharing her experiences and insights as a powerful, adaptable framework for raising feminists and, perhaps, for cultivating our own feminism.

“The Lesser Bohemians” by Eimear McBride

“At least I reek of new less and less. Now at night, uncurling stretch-sore self, I conjure farther futures from the ceiling cracks – in glorious technicolor – what this pleasant present lacks. I will it, hope and dream it. Fine my life’ll be when it comes. When I am right. When I have made myself. When I have. When I”

“The Lesser Bohemians” is Eimear McBride’s second novel and second nomination for The-Lesser-Bohemiansthe Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Her first novel, “A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing”, won the prize in 2014. Both works showcase McBride’s anomalous, experimental writing style and the rawness with which she presents tumultuous emotion and intensely complicated relationships.

“The Lesser Bohemians” features the inner thoughts and outward actions of an 18 year old girl who has just moved to London to attend drama school. McBride is calculated and stingy with character names, withholding the protagonist’s name until well past the book’s half-way point and the rest of the characters’ until deep into the final quarter. This tactic is clearly strategic and is meant, perhaps, to influence the way in which the reader gets to know characters and also to connote the mystery and enigmatic nature of people. Because the absence of names is so deliberate and weighs so heavily on the reader’s experience, I shan’t be revealing any names here.

Desperate for adult experience, for maturation into some future self of adult perfection, our protagonist’s journey is shared in a narrative that is as chaotic, jarring and fluid as her life itself. She is in the throes of that sleep-deprived, oft-intoxicated, over-hormonal stage of life that nearly crushes and often indelibly shapes who we become. Uncertain in herself, traumatized by events of childhood, she wants desperately to be someone else, drawn to acting as the perfect mask for her life.

She is sometimes wildly volatile and self-destructive: “I hate it, I fucking hate it. What? All of myself. Take it easy, he says. All my fucking skin. I’d rip it off if I could. I’d start again. I wouldn’t be this. Stop! Him wrestling my hands. Stop it, you’ll hurt yourself. I want to. Lie down! Lie down, and him pinning me best as feral permits. But what worthless limbs can’t, my mouth invites Hit me, I want you to hit me or fuck me til I bleed.” 

She is often overly self-critical: “I suddenly misplace the best of myself, allowing a far worse in. And there goes reason. There goes sense. Decency, and with it, tenderness.” 

She is always yearning to be someone she’s not: “Off into it so. Time rushing through days. Crucify lazy flesh. Defy lazy brain. And the much and much of delight, of make. Turning the body. Converting the self into flecks of form and re-form. Her. Into her. Into someone else.”

“The Lesser Bohemians” is sometimes violent and traumatic, sometimes sexy and even romantic.

“Before him I thought that when love came it would come perfectly. Not in a dingy room on dirty sheets and not caring at all about those things. It is the spell of him. Unconscious gift that if I told would make him laugh.” 

No rose-colored lenses allowed, this book is full of raw emotion; it embraces the messiness of life, the unfettered nature of emotions, the ugly-crier in all of us. McBride’s writing style – the lack of punctuation and, often, any pressure to construct complete sentences – can be challenging, especially until you let go of your pretenses and lean into it. I find it not unlike reading Faulkner – sometimes you just have to step back, cross your eyes, and then plunge in for the narrative to wash over you and start to make sense. Once you allow yourself to be swept up into the rhythms of the story, however, it is hard to resist its beauty, its honesty, its unvarnished look at the best and worst in us. Eimear McBride is a gifted writer with a sure voice and ferociously unique style that are an important addition to literary fiction.


“London’s utterness makes outers of us all – though this morning, mostly, elbows to be missed.”

 

“The Sport of Kings” by C.E. Morgan

“‘Real knowledge begins with knowing your place in the world. Now, you are neither nigger, nor woman, nor stupid. You are a young man born into a very long, distinguished line. That confers responsibility, so stay focused on your learning. And as far as your imagination is concerned, it should be relegated to secondary status. You’ll never have an original thought, never be great, never invent anything truly new, and this shouldn’t bother you one bit. There’s nothing new under the sun. You just need to know your place.'”

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C.E. Morgan’s “The Sport of Kings” is a mammoth book which has been widely celebrated and has made its way to the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist. Set in the heart of bluegrass Kentucky, an area I know well if not intimately, “The Sport of Kings” portrays an over-story about raising and racing Thoroughbreds in Paris, Kentucky, and a deeply developed under-story about inheritance, race, and ambition.

Henry Forge is southern royalty, the only son of a wealthy, long-established farming family. Forge’s father is cold and cruel, a man of exacting standards and unwavering prejudice; he is a strict originalist who doesn’t brook with rebellion of any type or degree. When young Henry expresses his dream of converting their family’s corn fields into a world-class Thoroughbred farm, his father’s rejection is swift and merciless.

“‘What looks like a horse farm is really a cheap attempt at dignity. All these pretty things before you amount to a heap of goddamn rhinestones. …Dignity can’t be purchased, Henry, least of all by these latecomers, these …these outsiders, who dress up their addictions in Sunday clothes and Derby hats. People call it a sport, but I’ll tell you this: this so-called sport is driven by compulsion, and weak men love nothing more than to abandon themselves to their compulsions.'”

This, spoken without irony by a man committed to generations of farming corn explicitly for the distilling of bourbon. Now, I love bourbon and admire horses, but I can plainly see the threads of addiction, excess, and vice in both well enough to appreciate the hypocrisy of this statement.

Not to be deterred, Henry’s laser-like focus only narrows until he has indeed created a renowned horse farm on his family’s land. The costs of this farm and, more, Henry’s ambition are both extraordinary and unsurprising.

His obsession with breeding and perfection are in many ways even more extreme than his vilified father’s. Henry treats his only child, Henrietta, as his for the shaping, a mere extension of his quest for perfection and legacy. As Henrietta grows up, she proves she has a head for the business. Co-managing their farm, Henrietta is at once coldly professional and wildly volatile. Her life on the farm is flawless and reserved, while her nights are spent trolling bars and engaging in dangerous, hollow sexual encounters with anyone she meets. That is, until the arrival of Allmon Shaughnessy, a black ex-con with a gift for horsemanship.

Morgan has much to say about misogyny and racism in “The Sport of Kings.” By setting her story within an industry – and it is an industry as much as a sport – like horse racing, Morgan has the perfect platform to expose generations-long bigotry and oppression. From the perspective of Henry and his like, people, and especially women and people of color, are pawns to be manipulated with minimal exposure lest one’s own supremacy be tainted.  As Henry’s father opines early in Henry’s life, “‘[T]he core of femininity is a softness of resolve and mind; reason is not their strong suit.'” Yet Morgan expertly features women throughout her story who are anything but the delicate flower and font of maternal softness. Henry’s own mother, we learn, quietly rebels through a love affair with one of the farm hands, while his wife is completely uninterested in the roles of wife and mother.

“What she was coming to realize, but what no woman was allowed to utter aloud, was that there was no guarantee your child would be adequate compensation for the life you gave up to have it.”

In the third generation of Forge women, there is Henrietta, a woman with, according to her father, a “man’s mind” and with a focus and stoicism that can give her father’s a run for his money. Henrietta, though outwardly obedient, suffers no fools and sees right through the feints of men.

“Why did men always make this play for boldness? They came off like little children pretending to be grown. Why bother lying to a woman, who could read an expression before it formed, and know its source and its source’s source?”

Throughout the book, and particularly in the sections which trace Allmon’s family history and his childhood, Morgan has poignant insights into race and racism, as well. Both Henry and his father are white supremacists with an unshakeable sense of superiority.

“‘You see, Henry, for them the race problem is either a mental abstraction or a romance. For us, as perhaps you’re beginning to understand, it is a problem of practice and the everyday frustration of dealing with the colored appetite and intellect, which is entirely different from our own. It is quite easy to imagine the equality of all men when you sit on a high horse and don’t have to walk among them in the fields. Indeed, everyone appears the same height from that view. But demount the horse and it soon becomes apparent that there are not merely masters and slaves by happenstance, or overseers and laborers by happenstance, but that these divisions are inherent and unavoidable.'”

The parallels between horses and black people in the minds of Henry and his ancestors are clear. They are both extraordinary animals to be bred, broken, and controlled for the benefit of the white man. Fortunately for the breadth and soul of the novel, the reader is also presented with Allmon’s story, in which the systemic traps and trappings of racism are exposed, the impact of an unjust society impossible to ignore.

“They say there’s gonna be a black president someday. Maybe. Or maybe just black skin. Either way, you won’t ever get to vote in Kentucky. Won’t have a place to live, ’cause you won’t qualify for Section Eight housing to get your feet on the ground, won’t ever serve on a jury to keep a brother out of jail, won’t ever get a good job once you X the little felony box, can’t legally carry a gun to keep some crazy racist from killing you, and there was never any protection against the cops to begin with.”

“The Sport of Kings” is exquisitely crafted, though not without its challenges. Just like its star Thoroughbred, Hellsmouth, the novel is off to a slow, awkward start; the first 100 pages were well written but somehow tedious. By the second section of the book, however, the story picks up its pace and demands attention for the remaining 400+ pages. Though the story, especially at the beginning, tends to jump time and point of view from paragraph to paragraph with absolutely no signal – not even a space – only allowing the reader to catch up mid way through the next paragraph when an age or date alludes to the passage of time, this delivery, too, either smooths out or one becomes acclimated to it, so that soon the story just seems to flow effortlessly and naturally through time and space. All told, “The Sport of Kings” was extraordinary – worthy of its place on the Women’s Prize for Fiction short list and well worth your time to read it.

 

 

 

The 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize Shortlist

It’s official! The Baileys committee has announced the six nominees featured on its short list (and still in the running for the prize, announced June 7).

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Overall, I am pleased with the list (not that anyone asked me). I predicted 3 of the 6 correctly, with a strong agreement for a 4th (“The Sport of Kings”) as my alternate (7th) pick. I believe that “The Power” and “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” are the strongest novels remaining and am hopeful that one may come out on top. The one surprise on this list is the presence of “The Dark Circle”, which I found disappointing and forgettable. It will be hard to wait until June 7 to hear the official pick!

Below is the Short List in its entirety, with links to my review of each.

Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀̀
The Power by Naomi Alderman
The Dark Circle by Linda Grant
The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan
First Love by Gwendoline Riley
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Read more here about the shortlist from the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction website.