Ferdinand Dennis – Duppy Conqueror

Duppy Conqeror was first published in 1998 but. due to HopeRoad is now back in print and, hopefully, will reach a wider fanbase for it is a unique novel.

Marshall Sarjeant, who lives with his aunt in Paradise Jamaica , discovers that his family carries a curse which leads to being crippled or insane. After an unfortunate incident involving the discovery of a missing teacher, he is sent to the place where the curse all started. There he finds out he has a mission to overcome the evil spirit (or duppy) and banish the curse forever and to become the Duppy Conqueror.

Throughout Marshall’s mission we see over 60 years of Jamaican history : The role Jamaicans played in Britain during the second world war, the windrush generation, slavery, the African diaspora and Jamaica’s development into an urban area.

The book’s main message is about reconnecting with one’s roots. In the beginning of Duppy Conqueror, Marshall rejects an origin myth about Jamaica, however through all the experiences and encounters he starts to accept his roots, this is further exemplified when he visits Africa and discovers more about his birthplace. I guess when we want to defeat our demons it is best to get to the roots and sort out the problems there.

Duppy Conqueror is an odd book to define. It’s a mixture of historical fiction, there’s a picaresque element, it’s also a bildungsroman of sorts. There are surreal moments but there realistic ones as well, not to mention the political aspect. Furthermore all is told in an incredibly readable way, which gets all the points across easily.

Duppy Conqueror is considered to be Ferdinand Dennis’ masterpiece and I can definitely see why. It’s fun, has a wicked sense of humor and discusses serious issues all at once and there’s a lot of surprises along the way.

Many thanks to HopeRoad for providing a copy of Duppy Conqueror.

Mary Shelley – Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (2020 reread)

I first read Frankenstein back in October 1994, which meant that I was 15 and to say that it was a mind opener was an understatement. What impressed me at the time was the structure. I never knew an author could fit three perspectives in one slim book. Obviously I liked the plot but I just saw it as a story. Nothing else.

Now 26 years later I have reread it, and if anything I’m more in awe of it.

Although everyone knows the plot, I have to admit that over time it has been distorted by the film adaptations and parodies.:

The begins with a person undertaking a voyage to the north pole via a whaling boat. On his journey he briefly comes across Frankenstein’s monster only to meet Victor Frankenstein trailing after him. Frankenstein then tells the explorer his life story. It is worth noting that the explorer’s tale is in the form of a letter.

Hailing from a middle class family, Frankenstein’s interest in natural science has him creating a living human out of dead bodies. He succeeds only for his creation to run away.

After noticing that his younger brother has been murdered and an innocent friend of the family is executed for it, he confronts the monster who tells HIS tale.

When he ran away he hid in the forest and the monster watched a family, acquiring language, fire, knowledge of wrong and right and the notion of love in the process. He tries to introduce himself to the family and it goes wrong due to the fact that he is frightening. He then believes that his own creation shouldn’t have happened and upon discovering how Frankenstein put him together, He decides to kill everyone connected to Frankenstein until he creates a female equivalent.

We then jump back to Frankenstein’s side of the story. He tries to create a bride but it goes against his moral code ( having broke it previously) and refuses. The monster then kills Frankenstein’s father and wife. Frankenstein thus decides to chase the monster down and kill him thus going as far as the North Pole.

We return to the explorer who finishes the story by taking on Frankenstein , who gets sick and meets the monster again in the ship as both watch him die.

The creation of Shelley’s novel is well known but worth documenting. Mary Shelley, her husband Percy Bysshe, Lord Byron and his partner Claire made a bet to write a ghost story. Influenced by a nightmare where she imagined he deceased baby coming to life and her travels to Germany (the book’s setting) Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein.

Like the myth it is based on. Frankenstein is about how a person should not tamper with things that are beyond morality. What is dead should stay dead. Even the monster himself knew he was an aberration to humanity, hence wanting another monster like himself so that they could live away from society.

From a philosophical point of view there’s also the question of language acquisition. The monster, in the beginning is no more like a feral child but as he starts to acquire language, he becomes a more capable creature. This is further accentuated by a discovery of books which increase his linguistic prowess – in fact his narrative is just as eloquent as Victor Frankenstein’s.

There other themes. How can a monster love? what are the ethical boundaries of science? can one be dead and alive at the same time? are notions such as aesthetics innate or do they have to be acquired?

Another unique feature of the book is that it is a science-fiction book, yet it doubles as Gothic horror at the same time. Whether this was the intention, I don’t know but in it’s own way it is a pioneering book. do not forget that the novel was written in 1818, with a revision in 1830 so it definitely is quite a feat.

As mentioned before one cannot ignore the structure. Frankenstein is an epistolary novel, but in the loosest since there’s the mirror-like plan.

Explorer

Frankenstein’s narrative.

Monster narrative

Frankenstein’s narrative

Explorer

To mind the only other book which manages to pull of a literary trick like this is David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Do name others though, for I feel there must be something in-between.

In Jeanette Winterson’s 2019 novel Frankissstein , she places computer programmers (ironically the pioneer of computer programming is Lord Byron’s daughter) as the heirs to Victor Frankenstein. The theory is plausible. Robots are dead beings, made alive through electricity. Programmers want to take creations are far as they can and as a result AI could potentially take over the human race as their algorithms can adapt and evolve. It’s food for thought.

What else can I say about this landmark novel? tons more but already this blog post is lengthy (by my standards) so if you want to add more in the comments go ahead.

Sayaka Murata, Ginny Tapley Takemori (trans) – Earthlings

At first when reading Earthlings, I kept thinking about how different it was than Sayaka Murata’s debut novel Convenience Store Woman (CSW) Now thinking about, thematically they are quite similar but the dressing is different and there’s a shock factor involved.

Like the debut, Earthlings deals with an outsider. Whereas CSW’s main protagonist Keiko was a misfit out of her own will, Earthling’s Natsuki’s refusal to socialise stems from a much more serious root.

In Gregg Araki’s adaptation of Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin, there is a character who is obsessed with aliens, almost to a point where he wishes that he abducted by one. Later on we discover that this obsession lies within the fact that he was abused as a child by his baseball coach and he uses his obsession to escape from the traumatic experience.

Matsuki is also obsessed with the notion of being an alien. She thinks her toy is an ambassador from an invented planet and her life wish is to be abducted and escape reality. Straight away we readers find out that she is neglected by her parents. Her situation is not helped by the fact that her teacher is abusing her. Since Natsuki is a victim of both physical and mental abuse, it is inevitable that she needs to emerge into a fantasy world.

Natsuki does find solace in her cousin Yuu. After an encounter, which is tied to Natsuki’s past occurs, they are separated.

When trauma is not treated, it can stay with a person. After the incident with her cousin, we jump to the future and Natsuki si grown up. She still cannot socialise and is in a sexless non physical marriage with another trauma victim, who also finds it hard to fit into society.

Natsuki’s past starts making a reappearance and ignites her love for aliens. Without giving much away she finally confronts her fears and breaks free in an unconventional way.

Abuse and it’s after effects are central to Earthlings plot. However conforming , like, CSW, is as well. When her acquaintance and family find out about Nasuki’s living arrangement, they try their hardest to tell her how to be a married woman. In this aspect her husband does not want to ascribe to the typical idea of a married man, which makes him similar to Natsuki. This shared idea of non conformity also shapes their final plan.

Earthlings does shock at times. Saying that it is meaningful as it it used to explain character traits of the book’s main protagonists. Once again Murata has created an unforgettable novel which is both unsettling and, yet provides an insight into the human psyche.

Many thanks to Granta for providing a requested copy of Earthlings

Rachel Mann – The Gospel of Eve

It is inevitable but when one reads Rachel Mann’s debut novel, one will be reminded of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. This is not to mean that The Gospel of Eve is a carbon copy but, like Tartt and Daphne du Maurier and Iris Murdoch, Mann manages to mix both the sacred and the profane deftly. Like the authors mentioned one can also take Mann’s novel as a straight up Gothic thriller or something which provides food for thought.

To give away The Gospel of Eve’s plot would be churlish of me, for it is much more fun for the reader to discover it’s little twists and turns. The non spoiler version is about a young woman commencing her studies for the priesthood and once she is there she becomes enraptured by the mysterious Evie and then initiates herself with a group of other seminarians. The more she knows the group, the more she discovers who they really are.

Redemption plays a huge part in the book, the novel itself is in the form of a confession, all the characters are fascinated by medieval religious practices, which includes elaborate methods of atoning for one’s sins. Throughout The Gospel of Eve there are snippets about Christian martyrs who also suffered for their faith and achieved the ultimate redemption by dying.

The Gospel of Eve also focuses on feminism within the Anglican church. The book takes place in the 90’s, a time where the synod approved a legislature where Anglican women could be priests. This new law is still not fully accepted at the seminary the main protagonists studies at so there is a battle. Furthermore the titular Gospel of Eve (an apocryphal book written from Eve’s perspective – yes there’s a double meaning) has a part to play as well. There is a lot to uncover and Mann’s accessible, yet clever writing style makes it a pleasure to do so.

To say I enjoyed The Gospel of Eve is an understatement. It is an addictive read. All the usual motions of a great book happened to me : I could not put it down, I carried everywhere, I had to turn each page to find out how the story would develop, I kept on thinking about it. I am still thinking about it. The Gospel of Eve is excellent. You will not read a book which manages to merge deep thoughts with first class storytelling. Read it

Many thanks to Rachel Mann and Darton, Longman & Todd for providing a copy of The Gospel of Eve

Chris Tutton – The Failing of Angels

From pop culture to theological writings, there is no doubt that love is the highest virtue/feeling of them all. Love is all round, all you need is love, love me as I have loved you. It’s all there.

The narrator of Chris Tutton’s novel, The Failing of Angels also is on a quest for love. Growing up abused both physically and mentally by both parents, this narrator tries to find some higher ground in love.

The Failing of Angels is set up as a memoir, where the narrator is describing his childhood. At first his experiments in love fail. He tries his hardest to win his parents affection but it backfires, He tries to woo the girls at school but that doesn’t work either. He then tries to find solace with music and ends up forming a band, which sort of works but does not provide that fulfillment. Finally he finds what he wants in a girl called Yssy. In the meantime his abusive mother sets up a religion to redeem people. Without giving too much away the novel’s conclusion leaves us to believe that, no matter the circumstances solitude will be present but love in it’s vaguest form will help.

The Failing of Angels has a plot to ponder and pick apart (I’m sure my interpretation can be counter-argued) but really, the highlight is the writing. It is gorgeous. Tutton is a poet and that sensibility comes out in the book. Each sentence just needs to be reread. There are moments of pure beauty counterbalanced by sorrow but nevertheless there is a great amount of pleasure reading tightly crafted prose.

The coming of age novel is nothing new in literature but Chris Tutton gives the genre a fresh outlook and I can guarantee that there never be one which is as evocatively written as The Failing of Angels.

Many thanks to Avalanche Books for providing a copy of The Failing of Angels

Ingrid Persaud – Love After Love

Love After Love is a strange novel. It starts off as a slightly off kilter story but then evolves into a many headed beast, tackling issues ranging from immigration, gender, physical abuse and many things in-between.

The book is narrated by the three main protagonists : Betty , her son Solo and Mr. Chetan, the live-in tenant. Each character has a personal story.

Betty is a victim of abuse, luckily her husband dies and Mr. Chetan moves in. She also deperately wants another partner, however Trinidadian society, to a certain extent, prevents from forming a long term relationship.

Solo is anti-social and an independent thinker. Later on in the book he moves in with his uncle, who lives in The States and learns some life lessons.

Mr. Chetan is a closet gay man who also is victimised by society. Eventually he does come out (not a big spoiler) and tries to connect with a former lover.

All these three characters go through ups and downs and realise the problems of living in a tight knight community or in Solo’s case being a Caribbean native in the U.S. The final message being the importance of family.

Normally when an author squeezes a lot of topical themes in a book, things become messy but Ingrid Persaud does manage to pull it off . True the book is a bit messy but there’s verve, definitely aided by using dialect. Although the topics are serious there’s always some humor running through the book. Plus there’s an insight to Trinidad’s society and customs, something which I enjoyed reading about.

This year I’ve read quite a few books which are about raising awareness to social issues but Ingrid Persaud just adds a lot of sparkle to it. An engaging debut.

Like this? try this : Patsy – Nicole Dennis-Benn

Hilary Mantel – The Mirror & the Light

We’ve come to the end

Like the previous volume in the trilogy, TMATL opens with Cromwell reflecting over a dead person. In this case it is the freshly beheaded Anne Boleyn and the five men who were accused of having an affair with her, Then it’s business as usual.

At this point of the book Thomas Cromwell is King Henry the VIII’s right hand person and he has a lot of problems to solve. There’s the king’s first daughter Mary, who is declaring that she is the rightful heir, The king’s niece who decided to marry without her uncle’s permission, errant bishops, papists, illegitimate children, finding a wife for his legitimate, potential wars, strained relations between France and England, there’s uprisings, financial problems and a resurgence of a plague. Plus king Henry’s health and temper are getting worse AND although he finally gets that coveted heir, his wife dies and he needs a new queen.

And Cromwell has to solve it all.

Cromwell is unstoppable, unfortunately he lets all the power go to his head and after the unwise choice of siding with an Anabaptist, he is accused of treason and is killed as well. All three books end with a execution but this one is by far the most emotional one.

I have spoken about the other themes in the past volumes : animal imagery, social class, tapestry and mythology so I won’t go into them and rather focus on the new themes which emerge,

The Mirror & the Light has many passages devoted to Cromwell’s past exploits in other countries. These were just hinted at but now we see how they shaped his way of thought. Not only is Cromwell remembering about his youth but his more immediate past is haunting him in the shape of ghosts of the people he allowed to be executed (quite a Shakespearean move)

The reader is also presented with a Britain which is divided, a place full of unrest and rebellion. All their leader can do is act like an infant and contradict himself while whining about how wife number four (Anne of Cleves) does not satisfy him , also acting upon whim – does it sound familiar?

One last theme which stood out was how power corrupts. In Cromwell’s case, it leads to his downfall with all his trusted associates turning against him and finding insignificant details in his life and twisting them around so they look like Cromwell was committing treason. Saying that he did the same thing to St. Thomas More and Anne Boleyn. It could be a case of just desserts.

As always, the writing is impeccable. There’s a bucketload of gorgeous sentences, light crumbs of humor and labyrinthine descriptions. TMATL is a wordsmith’s dream. Not too mention that the last chapter could possibly the best piece I’ve read in quite a while.

Saying that I did find the book a bit flabby at times and felt that it could have needed a bit more editing. Plus what was the significance of introducing a new character in the form of Cromwell’s illegitimate daughter? to show fatherly instincts? so yes, the book is flawed but, honestly after investing so much time in this trilogy and reading Mantel’s goose flesh inducing prose, an extra 100 pages is really a minor irritation. TMATL is a fitting conclusion.

So now get up

The first two volumes of the Cromwell trilogy:

Wolf Hall

Bring Up the Bodies

Pilar Quintana, Lisa Dillman (trans) – The Bitch

This year, I read a good number of books about motherhood but The Bitch approaches this topic from an interesting angle.

Damaris has not had an easy life. She has witnessed the death of her next door neighbor when she was a child, was abandoned by her mother in order to be raised by her uncle’s family, has a so-so relationship with her husband and now, as an adult, cannot bear a child. In the book she is 40 years old and has given up hope, that is until she comes across a female puppy.

Thinking that she will finally be able to nurture her motherly instincts, Damaris takes care of the puppy to a point where it becomes obsessive.

Like all things, the dog grows up and rebels by running away and returning pregnant. As this is something that has eluded the main protagonist, she starts a war of sorts with the dog, with drastic consequences. Who is the real bitch of the story?

Despite her rash actions, Damaris is quite a complex individual. Her longing to be a mother takes over her mind, and yet when her beloved becomes a mother herself, she feels that there’s some form of dishonesty, Furthermore Damaris feels that she could have prevented the drowning and it hangs with her. Later on in the book, the dog does something which recalls Damaris’ past memories and causes her to commit a regrettable action.

Due to some hints in the plot, I do have to say that there are some passages which may trigger strong emotions in people but do remember that the dog’s symbolism is a deep one. The Bitch is a powerful and compulsively readable tale about longing.

Many thanks to World Editions for providing a copy of The Bitch

For Maltese Readers

Support your local independent booksellers! I’m an affiliate with Mallia & D’Amato Booksellers https://www.facebook.com/malliadamatobooksellers/. If you are interested in buying the book mentioned please click on the link and write BM&D after your order.

Brit Bennett – The Vanishing Half

Brit Bennett’s debut The Mothers, for me, had a lot of potential. The main premise was interesting but the characters were flat, way too much melodrama and the whole thing felt uneven. I’m glad to say that The Vanishing Half is much better, in every single way.

Stella and Desiree are Afro-American twins, however Stella’s skin is lighter than her sisters’ . Both feel stifled in the Podunk town they live in and decide to escape. Once they start fending for themselves, they both follow divergent paths. Desiree marries an abusive husband and has a child but escapes and returns to her mother. Stella, finds herself some secretarial work, reinvents herself as a white woman, marries her rich boss and has a child as well.

Both children meet and then it’s a matter of uncovering some family secrets.

Racism is at the core of The Vanishing Half. There’s racism against Afro-Americans , there’s examples of white privilege (as a ‘white’ person, Stella receives special treatment. Also there is racism between Afro-Americans, something which I have never read about before and that surprised me. In most racist tales I’ve read solidarity between the opposed is common but here, Bennett states that even a black person will insult and abuse one another, although in Stella’s case it’s more out of fear of bring caught, rather than pure hatred.

Illusion versus reality is another theme. There’s Stella’s secret past, her daughter is an actor because she likes the ability to be someone different. Desiree’s daughter, Jude, enters a relationship with a partner who has a secret as well.

I still feel that Bennett’s writing style has a solid element to it but The Vanishing Half can be complex with it’s themes and Bennett pulls it off well. This is a well crafted novel despite it being in non chronological order. One day I believe that Brit Bennett will write a book that will blow a reader’s mind. The vanishing Half is one step towards that.

Like this? try this : An American Marriage – Tayari Jones

For Maltese Readers

Support your local independent booksellers! I’m an affiliate with Mallia & D’Amato Booksellers https://www.facebook.com/malliadamatobooksellers/. If you are interested in buying the book mentioned please click on the link and write BM&D after your order.

Tom Robbins – Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

There is one poignant scene in Tom Robbin’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, where a sage tells the main protagonist that mankind will never be free unless it understands that there has to be a stop to consumption and greed. If not the paradoxical forces of nature will intervene.

Judging by global warming and the pandemic I guess we haven’t learnt much. May I remind you that this book was published in 1976.

The plot is about Sissy, a girl born with over-sized thumbs, which she uses for hitchhiking. On her travels she meets a tycoon called the countess, who deals with douche fresheners, who uses her as a model. One day he decides to film a commercial on his all female cowboy health spa and needs Sissy to take part. Eventually this leads to rebellion and whooping crane rustling.

Yes the plot is bizarre but Even Cowgirls get the Blues is a highly philosophical work. Trust me, there are many complex issues at at,

The central theme is freedom. A lot of the characters want it. For Sissy hitchhiking gives her the movement she craves. The girls on the ranch want autonomy from males. Sissy, although married , starts up relationships with the head cowgirl Jellybean, their sexuality is being unleashed as well. Throughout the book we readers get glimpses of characers wanting and savouring freedom.

The apex is when sissy spends time with the sage aka The Chink (yes it sounds racist but once your read the book you’ll understand the meaning behind the term) who launches into a philosophical discussion about time, religion, the paradox’s of life and the notion of stability. As I stated before, we have to be free in order to discover ourselves but that means we have to be the agent of change.

One cannot bypass the fact this is an eco-fable. The whooping crane subplot helps bring out the fact that we are destroying the planet for our selfish gains and the repercussions will be big.

For a book that was published 44 years ago it is way ahead of it’s time and these philosophies still make sense today. The more controversial scenes involving explicit lesbian sex and gang-bangs are more a product of their time but probably back then this could be seen as transgressive.

Stylistically Robbins is brilliant. Puns galore, witty double entendres and many meta moments litter the book. In a way think of a more accessible and streamlined Pynchon.

I’m surprised that people do not really mention Tom Robbins. All I can say is that I was impressed and this is definitely not the last book I’ll read by him.

Like this? try these: Thomas Pynchon – Inherent Vice , John Irving – The World According to Garp , Jim Dodge – The Stone Junction, Don DeLillo – Underworld, Richard Powers – The Overstory

For Maltese Readers

Support your local independent booksellers! I’m an affiliate with Mallia & D’Amato Booksellers https://www.facebook.com/malliadamatobooksellers/. If you are interested in buying the book mentioned please click on the link and write BM&D after your order.