The Strays, Emily Bitto
Winner of The Stella Prize for this year, this novel reminded me of Doris Lessig’s The Golden Notebook in its retrospective angle on a historical social movement, except that in The Strays I also felt like I actually got to know the characters though they were complex. The strays are a collection of artists who are drawn to the home of famous avant-garde artist Evan Trentham and his wife Helena. The strays are also their three daughters, largely neglected in their parents’ bohemian lifestyle and the story is told from the perspective of the middle daughter’s best friend, Lily. Her family is totally conventional, which she despises, though by the end you wonder whether the reason she’s able to appreciate the Trenthams’ life is because she’s already had some stability. This is a literary novel, so it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea; the pace is somewhat ambling. Nevertheless, it’s a brilliant portrayal of girlhood friendships and a fascinating study of the relationships between mothers and daughters.
Prodigal Father Pagan Son, Anthony ‘LT’ Menginie
LT Menginie grew up among the Pagans which is a ‘1 percenter’ motorcycle club in Philadephia. Unlike 99% of clubs, they consider it their business to break the law. They have their own code but it’s somewhat slippery. LT’s father was the leader of the Pagans but was in gaol for the majority of LT’s childhood so he grew up idolising ‘The Saint’, another Pagan, and being groomed by him to one day attain full membership in the club. This is a childhood of neglect, rape, drugs and violence. Women are possessions that come after your bike in terms of worth. LT loves his mum and wants to see her escape her drug problem but she is powerless to protect him and time and again she chooses her abusive boyfriend over him. This autobiography was harrowing to read but it was also unexpectedly funny and tender in places.
The Perfect Wife, Katherine Scholes
I had this on my Kindle for ages before I read it because the title didn’t grab me and it’s a fairly traditional drama-with-a-happy-ending kind of story. However once I started it I discovered why I bought it in the first place – it’s set in 1950s Tanganyika, very close to Dodoma town where we live. It follows Kitty Hamilton, an Aussie farm girl turned artist who got married to an English aristocrat. Separated through much of the war years, by the time they move to Tanganyika for him to oversee The Groundnut Project their cultural differences are starting to show. The Tanganyika in this book is a wildly different place to the Tanzania we know: schemes like The Groundnut Project changed the ecosystem forever; the characters operate in a stratified colonial society; even the Swahili is different. The British government and its officers come off pretty badly in this novel and understandably so since The Groundnut Project was doomed by their ignorance and ended up being a colossal failure. The reader is positioned to identify with the one British farmer who takes time to research and get to know local customs. While that’s very appealing, this novel fails to rise above the well worn literary trope of Africa as the exotic backdrop for white stories, and there are no 3D depictions of Tanganyikan characters.
Sarmada, Fadi Azzam, tr. Adam Talib
Fadi Azzam is a Syrian expat who ficticiously narrates this story. At a party in Europe he runs into a Druze woman who claims, with the doctrine of transmigration, to be carrying the memories of a woman who was ‘honour killed’ by her brothers in Fadi’s home village of Sarmada several years ago. He returns there to discover her story and that of two other women in the village. The whole novel is translated from the Arabic and its title (also the name of the village) is apparently the word for to perpetuate or remain unchanged. I’d love to say I finished it as many have suggested reading this novel gives key insights into the background of Syrians and their world which is in such jeopardy in our modern world. However in the end I couldn’t deal with some of the themes of magic and malevolence and I left it halfway through.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.