The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods, Jamala Safari
The first third of this novel introduces us to Risto’s world. A son of a middle class, town dwelling family in the DRC, he spends holidays in his grandmother’s village, a world that is both mysterious and familiar to him. There’s so much here of the differences in knowledge, experience and spirituality between the town and the village as Africa changes. As the story continues, this world that is already in flux is destroyed by war, and Risto is taken to become a child soldier along with his cousin Benny. However, the real guts of this novel deals with life after the militia camp: how do you put yourself and your world back together when both fall apart? I guess you could make parallels with western literature that deals with trauma, such as the swathe of novels about shellshocked World War One veterans, but what’s surprising about this book is that its message is profoundly hopeful. In the end it is love that brings wholeness to Risto, casting the adage ‘love conquers all’ in a new and non-western light. You get the feeling that this story is almost a manifesto, a relocating of the Congolese people in their own story. Indeed, the book is dedicated to the author’s cousin who was taken as a child soldier.
Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys
This young adult novel would be an excellent replacement for The Endless Steppe (Esther Hautzig), which bored me to tears in year 10 English. Its subject matter is similar: Lina’s family is deported after the Soviet Union takes over Lithuania, first to a work camp in Siberia and then to an even more remote location. But this book isn’t simply a story of survival; it examines ethical issues like extortion, betrayal, rape and murder in a way that is far from graphic but nevertheless evocative. The story is based on the author’s own family and covers just the first year of Lina’s imprisonment, though she was held for 12. One striking thing is the prisoners’ hope that Hitler will invade Lithuania, saving them from Stalin: there’s a bleakness there, a hopelessness and a lack of choice that means this almost reads like Solzhenitsyn for kids. In all this, Lina uses drawings as an outlet for her feelings, dangerous as they are, and you get the feeling that her art sustains her.
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
When Margaret Atwood came up in my tutorial on reader-response criticism, I figured it was time to read The Handmaid’s Tale which had been recommended to me at the start of the year. In this dystopian world, the Old Testament concept of having a child by your wife’s ‘handmaiden’ dominates the life of its narrator, Offred. That’s not her real name: that was stripped from her and she’s simply known by the name of the household’s ‘Commander’, hence Of-Fred. There’s been some kind of apocalyptic environmental event which has resulted in mass infertility and led to these extreme measures where women are either wives (often barren), handmaidens, or Marthas (househelp). All women in this world are imprisoned in some sense, forbidden from reading and colour-coded according to their function. It’s a fascinating world, though I suspect women who’ve struggled with infertility or traumatic birth experiences would find it quite triggering. Despite the horror of this world, The Handmaid’s Tale is actually a tremendously pleasurable read because it is just so well written! The narrator has a love of puns and word association that brings added interest to the narrative. A major theme in this book is selfhood: when do you capitulate to the system, and does outward conformity compromise inward rebellion? What does it take to maintain a kernel of sense of self in a world that seeks to dehumanise you?
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
I already had this on my kindle when Maya Angelou passed away a few weeks ago so it seemed like a good moment to read it. She was a prolific writer of autobiographies and this first of seven, traces her childhood. Though it’s autobiographical, it reads like a novel as Angelou blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction. The girl Maya grows up in two very different context of segregated America: her grandmother’s strict, highly religious home in the south, and her mother’s less supervised lifestyle in the melting pot of city life in San Francisco. While the many rules of the former are baffling, the growing independence of the second is just as bewildering. The historical setting is fascinating and the story warm: though Maya grows up in a world of limits and confusion, she slowly learns to trust herself.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.