A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
The ‘word of thanks’ to the reader at the start of this mammoth novel jokes that you’ll sprain your wrists reading it. At 600,000 words — almost 1500 pages in soft cover — the length would be prohibitive for most people, but the problem for me was that I just couldn’t get into it. That was disappointing because I’d heard it’s a bit of a classic and an interesting portrayal of some of the interactions between the modern and the traditional in 1950s India, as Lata and her mother look for a suitable boy for her to marry. Maybe because it’s such a behemoth the narrative arc is too wide, but 100 pages in, nothing had happened, and I thought I quite liked Lata but hadn’t seen enough of her to really connect. It took me two weeks to get that far and I was finding it a drag so I put it down.
The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden, Jonas Jonasson
In contrast, I looked forward to picking this up each day. Its opening quote is ‘The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits’, and that sort of humour sums up this book. Nombeko is a black sanitation worker in 1950s Soweto in South Africa, but she’s also exceedingly clever and a little bit charming. When she accidentally involves herself in one of South Africa’s greatest military projects, her life takes a turn for the ludicrous. However, it’s completely believable because it’s told with a tone that shrugs, well, isn’t life just a bit strange sometimes? On one hand, the quirky characters get themselves into all kinds of crazy situations; on the other, it sometimes seems like the world just conspires against them. This is a rollicking tale that at the same time addresses issues of powerlessness, race, potential, prejudice, and ultimately love.
Son of Hamas, Mosab Hassan Yousef
This book is Mosab’s story of growing up under Israeli occupation as the son of one of the founders of Hamas. What’s striking is his characterisation of his father as a gentle and compassionate man who helped his mother with the dishes. Mosab argues that this is the Islam most Muslims know, but that the further you dig into it, the more you see the extremist side. He sees his father as a deeply conflicted man because of these two sides of Islam, and the Israeli occupation as providing fertile ground for extremism to be fostered among others. But Hamas isn’t just about extremist Islam, it’s also about a volatile political climate. Mosab recounts one time in particular when his father favoured peace and compromise, yet Yasser Arafat blackmailed him into ordering unrest while Arafat was able to maintain his own guise of promoting peace. There are so many players in the mix! Mosab ends up losing confidence in Hamas, partly because of the brutality with which they treated their own members. At the same time, he’s given a New Testament as a gift and starts to read it. He’s captivated by Jesus and particularly his ‘love your enemies’ statement. He feels he cannot become a Christian for a stack of apologetic reasons (the Bible is corrupted, how can Jesus be God’s son, etc.) but he starts living Jesus’ way, and his desire to stall further bloodshed leads him to become an Israeli intelligence operative. In many ways, he is a disciple before he becomes a believer. It’s a long process for him, over six years, from liking some of what Jesus says, to praying to a general ‘Creator’ in the mosque, to meeting some Christians, to exploring some of his apologetic questions. He tells of another Christian, an Israeli who refused to do his service with the Israeli Defence Force because he didn’t want to kill Palestinians, and asks, what if there were more people like the two of them on both sides of the conflict?
The Invention of Flying, Sue Kidd Monk
On her eleventh birthday, Sarah is presented with a slave girl, Handful, wrapped in a purple ribbon. She’s horrified, but she’s a shy girl with a stutter in a society family in Charleston. Her protest is feeble and quickly shot down. Sarah finds herself constrained not only by the social pressure around slavery, but also by the limitations placed on women at all levels of society. Inspired by early feminist and leading nineteenth century American abolitionist Sarah Grimke, this is a story of Sarah breaking free from her fetters and how that affects Handful. There’s an obvious power difference in the girls’ relationship, but there’s also a delicate interdependence. Just as the characters are well developed, so is the historical setting, and of particular interest to me was the portrayal of the abolitionist movement as diverse and fallible.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.