Scatterlings: A Novel by Resoketswe Martha Manenzhe

Scatterlings: A Novel by Resoketswe Martha Manenzhe

One of the primary reasons I love reading — and I’m not the first to say this — is the deep empathy reading about others’ experiences develops in ourselves. Scatterlings is such a novel that opens us up to new ways of understanding the past and the present, others and ourselves. This is a novel that will move you in many ways: to sadness, to fear, to loathing, to empowerment, to depression.

This is a novel in the vein of Beast of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala or The Bird Tattoo: A Novel by Dunya Mikhail. It is fiction of the very real, very tangible suffering in our world, albeit in a time now past (though, not gone, forgotten, or fully healed).

The novel is a historical fiction, taking place in South Africa as its racist, anti-black Apartheid policies began to ramp up. It revolves around the enforcement of the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, Act No. 55 of 1949, and the very real fall out in people’s lives.

The scattered are the wives, husbands, and children of these mixed-race marriages, suddenly made illegal in the eyes of the law. The novel traces the actions of a family and what they each individually must do to survive this.

The outcomes are tragic, but the reader who chooses this subject matter is one who understands that to witness is a step towards reparation.

After Sappho: A Novel by Selby Wynn Schwartz

After Sappho: A Novel
by Selby Wynn Schwartz

This is a deeply intellectual tale, one woven out of ancient and Italian history, imagination, and philosophies of Womanhood and queerness. The fiction in these pages reads as a reimagined history of real women, whose lives were lost to us because of the threat they posed (just by being) to European and Italian patriarchy. The tale unfolds as a kind of immortal telling of several lives, connected to a single soul. It is multigenerational and historical. There are several “Sapphos”.

As a historian, I deeply appreciated the embedded histories here: legal, social, cultural. There is a historiographical element to the book, an unfolding of a trajectory of thought as the book follows “Sappho” in her various guises and incarnations through time.

This is not an easy read. There is a required pre-existing understanding of Italian and European literature necessary to grasp its nuances. But, that said, the undercurrent of desire, rage, and feminist ambition is hard to miss. For that reason, After Sappho is worth both an initial and several re-reads.

A Woman’s Place: A Novel by Lainie Jones

A Woman’s Place: A Novel
by Lainie Jones

Some context as to how I came across this book. As I have mentioned before in another review, I do not usually gravitate toward independently published novels. But as with that previous review, I happened across the opportunity to do so via a FB group I am in which pairs up authors with reviewers. See here for the details of the May 2023 Book Review.

I am not one to pay attention to those one-word reviews you see plastered all over the covers of mass market books: “Captivating”, “Spell-binding”, “Unputdownable!” What is one woman’s tea is another’s poison (isn’t that the saying?) and so I am hesitant to repeat any of those vague, yet complimentary, descriptions here. But the thing is, A Woman’s Place is truly captivating. The paperback is a substantial read at 317 pages; I found myself lost in several chapters at a sitting, finishing the book in two days. It is, indeed, hard to put down. This historical paranormal mystery is riveting to its last page.

Jones does more than weave a gripping story; her prose is well-crafted and the dialogue is vivid, resulting in the creation of tangible, flawed, and very human characters. Jones holds a PhD in creative writing and possesses an academic and literary portfolio which clearly contributes to the historical and literary robustness of A Woman’s Place. This novel is clearly not a “standalone” work in the sense that it is built upon a foundation of years of research, thought, and analysis. What we read in A Woman’s Place is merely the tip of a very large iceberg.

A Woman’s Place is a novel running along the lines of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing or Melissa Fu’s Peach Blossom Spring as it is a multigenerational tale. It might be appropriate to liken A Woman’s Place to a fictional European settler version of My Place by Sally Morgan, though, of course the latter is biographical and A Woman’s Place is fiction.

The setting of Jones’ novel is rural Australia, in sheep farming country. It revolves around the events at a remote homestead named Barragunyah, a desolate place known by the name given it by its original inhabitants, indigenous aborigines. The novel spans the end of the 19th century through into the late 20th century, capturing the experiences of five generations of women of the family who came to farm the land. There is also another woman who resides on the land, a mysterious presence called only Mary. The novel unfolds the mystery of Mary and the magnetic pull of Barragunyah, as well as revealing how Australia’s and the world’s history comes to affect ordinary Australians, native and settler alike. British imperial history, the tragedy of the World Wars humanity faced in the twentieth century, and changes in women’s rights emerge as central hinges in the novel. There is also a prosopographical aspect to the novel in that the reader is treated to how these large world events actually affect the daily, lived lives of the Barragunyah women.

In many ways, this is a fantastic historical fiction written for a historian. Or perhaps I feel that way because I am one, and because Australian colonial and post-colonial history, being adjacent to Southeast Asian history of the same period, is something I have an interest in on both a professional and personal level. I think American audiences will find both novel elements and familiarity in these pages. The bond between mothers and daughters, humans and the land we inhabit and shape (and which shapes us), and our selves and our place in the movement of time and history are universal experiences, but American readers will also find themselves introduced to Australian history and experiences.

The novel also has an intriguing mystery embedded in it. As each generation faces the turbulent events of their age, Barragunyah and Mary are there, watching and waiting — though it is unclear what for. This is where the paranormal element emerges. In this way, A Woman’s Place reminds of me of Simone St James’s supernaturally tinged novels, The Haunting of Maddy Clare or The Sun Down Motel. Like many paranormal mysteries, Jones’ A Woman’s Place revolves around an unspoken crime, one grounded and inescapable in Australian history. Jones does a fantastic job of revealing the root of this crime without giving it away, tantalizingly allowing the reader’s own imagination to make sense of the darkness where Mary resides. On that point, I wish Jones had delved more deeply into the aboriginal perspectives on Barragunyah; I am left wanting a sequel or a prequel or the “other side” of the story, as it were. Barragunyah is haunting; as a reader I feel just as deeply connected to this place as the Larson women.

That is a good thing, to be left wanting more.

If you are interested in purchasing a copy of this independently published novel, you can find it on Amazon here. At present, it is priced at $7.49 for the ebook Kindle version and $18.99 for the paperback print.

The Bird Tattoo: A Novel by Dunya Mikhail

The Bird Tattoo: A Novel by Dunya Mikhail

This novel devastated me. From its start to its end, I could not look away, though I wanted to put it down so many times, needed to put it down so many times for my own peace of mind. The pain of the characters was so real and tangible that I felt if I put down the book I was doing them an injustice. If I could — and I did — put down this book, that is proof I am privileged enough as to be able to switch off their suffering. And that really is an important point here because the subjects of this story and their histories is not a thing of the past. Mikhail’s tale is not a fiction, but the reality of a several thousand women in the world today.

The Bird Tattoo is about suffering and war, and what happens to women and children in times and places of war. The main character is a young wife and mother, a Yazidi woman who is kidnapped from her home in Iraq and sold into slavery, to be passed over and over again as an unwilling wife among the Islamic militants who have taken over her country. In her agonizing wait for rescue and her journey to freedom, both she and the reader encounter other women and children who are enslaved — and the men who enslave them. The conflict that the novel is premised is on is not made explicit; it doesn’t need to be. What is important is that it is contemporary and could be one of so many that are happening right now. That is Mikhail’s point in fact.

You are reading the words of someone’s life right now.

Some of the men who rule this cruel war-torn world are as expected: cruel and indifferent. Others are kind, in relative terms. Each are trapped within a terror not of their own making, the terror of states and governments bent on power and hatred. Some of the women are equally as surprising; some have developed Stockholm Syndrome, some are defeated and have given up, others are defiant. They are prisoners all the same. They, like the men, exist at the whims of others — for them, at the whim of their male masters, their new husbands. There are children too, some of the women are not women at all, but are children.

The novel is about the trust and the lack of trust between these individuals. It is gut-wrenchingly sad, but it is also hopeful. It is about resilience of the human soul and the human drive to survive. It is about resilience of humaneness and the power of kindness.

The Bird Tattoo is like so many classic novels (indeed, I think it is destined for that category) in the vein of Elie Wiesel’s Night or Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation: necessarily painful to read. The pain the reader will feel is the liminal ritual, the necessary rite of passage that allows us to recognize hope and the privilege of being alive and safe. Books like these make us thankful for the peace in our lives.

Books like these also inspire us to action. That is the manifestation of hope.

If there is one book you read this year, read this one.

Cunning Women: A Novel by Elizabeth Lee

Cunning Women: A Novel by Elizabeth Lee

The description states this is a feminist tale, what happens when women are ostracized, “cast out” from their communities. It does not disappoint. The characters and their lives challenge typical narratives of women in this historical era. Despite being several decades past the so-called Women’s History turn in the discipline, popular depictions of European women in the 17th century remain stagnant as powerless, subjects in a patriarchal world, and largely passive. Of course, we have seen and heard of the warrior women (queens), daring women (aristocrats), extraordinary women (those who chose to challenge norms); what we often lack are narratives of truly ordinary women. They remain (largely) relegated to a passive role in society.

Not so in Elizabeth Lee’s Cunning Women.

In this tale women lead the way despite living under a patriarchal yoke. The characters here are not heroines, they do not dismantle patriarchy, they must live within in it (as we all do) but they resist. It is this reality that Lee folds the reader into. Mother and daughters, even the sons of the village are bound within a system not of their own making. What makes Cunning Women feminist is that some characters find ways to resist, even when knowing their reality cannot deliver on desire. They resist anyway. Other characters find ways to resist by scraping by, by working within the system and in these ways — by merely surviving — challenge the patriarchy which binds them. These characters, in their hanging onto life, raise a fist to “the Man” so to speak. Even the characters who bow to the patriarchy find themselves at odds with it when the women in this tale earn their vengeance.

Cunning Women is a complex tale, one which appears deceptively simple in its plot. It is for that reason (I believe) the story moves slowly. Lee allows the reader time to digest and mull over, to reflect as the main character does on the parameters of a woman’s life in an English village in the 17th century. The love story necessarily moves slowly; this is not a rush of lust but an intellectual and emotional growth of love. Note: this is not a romance. No, this is much more realistic than that. Cunning Women is an account of a realistic life with all its banality and uncertainties.

All in all, well worth the read.

Wicked City: Stories of Old New York by Clifford Browder

Wicked City: Stories of Old New York by Clifford Browder

Oooo! What a slick collection of grimy, gruesome peeks under the golden veneer of the Gilded Age! The prose and tales in Wicked City are as smooth as the criminal characters in its pages, which is to say, if you, Reader, are a fan of urban grit and historical fiction, then this is the collection of stories for you. Wicked City reads like a literary revision of The Gangs of New York, but instead of Daniel Day Lewis, the lead is a very chic Edith Wharton — if Edith had a side hustle as a brothel Madam and if the brothel was run out of the Waldorf Hotel.

Make of that what you will. (I love Edith Wharton’s refined snark and the grubbiness of Gangs of New York.)

The stories in Wicked City are historical, but some things have been updated since the actual Gilded Age. Many of the tales are infused with modern sensibilities, that is, there are more enlightened notions around race, racism, class, and gender in these pages than perhaps there were in history. For example, Browder includes tales from Chinatown and addresses interracial marriage. Jingoism and nativism abound and are present, but Browder does justice to history by highlighting the non-White version of events in his fictions.

Many of the stories interweave, though some of the connections are subtle; there is a sense of dispersed, urban community woven throughout the collection. True to Browder’s work, this is an homage to New York and its history.

Unnatural Ends: A Novel by Christopher Huang

Unnatural Ends: A Novel
by Christopher Huang

Unnatural Ends reads like a French six-course dinner prepared and delivered by the latest cohort of Top Chef, served in the very classy digs of Downton Abbey, while you and your guests find yourself flung into a live-action Gosford Park; in short, this novel is the quintessential English manor-murder-mystery, updated for the 2022 reader. There is a hint of Mavis Hay’s (1936) Santa Klaus Murder here, a bit of Agatha Christie, and a good strong nod to the immorality of the British Empire (though, nothing quite so dark as Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day). This novel is unbelievably English.

I loved it.

It did take me a few chapters to fully dig into the thrill of the case, but the family was so immediately deranged and dysfunctional, I couldn’t look away any more than if I encountered a train accident and found it to be the wreckage of the Orient Express.

The story begins with the death of the patriarch — his ghastly murder — and the strange clause in his will that disproportionately favors any of his adopted children who solves the crime. The novel unfolds from that point on in a predictable fashion for any mystery, but the ending and the twists of blood, family, and the loyalties of genetics kept this reader on her toes. Just when this reader thought she’d solved it, something emerged which threw her off! Between the three siblings, the pathetic mother and widow, the overbearing and sadistic father, and the eye-rolling police, Unnatural Ends delivers a very witty enjoyable read from start to finish.

For the reader who enjoys more than mystery, the novel also possesses several threads of underlying social and historical commentary. Britain’s dark imperial history, rife with its undeniable racism and eugenic standards of morality, are key foundational elements of the plot. Indeed, the cruel history of eugenics and colonialism are integral to the constituency of its characters and the motivations behind the twists and ruts of this mystery. On that note, however, the novel is not pedantic or a history lesson: it is wholly a mystery novel.

The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World by Malcolm Gaskill

The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World
by Malcolm Gaskill

Gaskill’s The Ruin of All Witches straddles the worlds of scholarship and fiction, the latter built on the solid foundations of the former. In doing so, this book takes the best of both literary domains to produce a richly detailed landscape of Puritan culture and society in England’s Old and New World. It centers on a Puritan couple, John and Mary, accused and tried for witchcraft in Thomas Pynchon’s New England. It starts long before their relationship begins and carries the reader through to its agonizing disintegration. Along the way, readers are engaged in the lives of a full cast of village denizens; this is a wonderfully immersive read.

Not merely backdrop to the main events, but integral for the reader’s understanding of the whys, whens, and hows of the witch hunts that followed, are the economic and political developments of Pynchon’s New England in the New World and the maneuverings of Royalists and Cromwellian supporters (rebels) in the Old. Gaskill delivers all the necessary context for the reader, leaving them with an almost palpable texture of English life in the 17th century (really, one can’t call this “American” in any sense of the word, though the New World does eventually become that.)

Readers should be prepared for a long read; detail like this does not come short, but the delivery is concise and succinct, leaving off unnecessary descriptions and fictions that do not add to the narrative. The descriptions that remain convey an authenticity, evidence of Gaskill’s skill of drawing out richness from (what is often, dry,) archival text. We can not only envision John and Mary, young and hopeful at the beginning, withered and waning at the end, but the humanity of their shortcomings are recognizable so as to make them and their community as near to us as our own flesh.

History, that remote and abstract object, comes alive in The Ruin of All Witches.

T’zee: An African Tragedy (A Graphic Novel) by Appollo (script) and Brüno (art)

T’zee: An African Tragedy (A Graphic Novel)
by Appollo (script) and Brüno (art)

T’zee is an action-packed, noir blockbuster in a graphic novel. It has all the makings of a Hollywood or Nollywood film: Post-colonial angst, corruption, family drama, illicit romance, sabotage, political violence. T’zee lacks actual history – it is all fiction — but its premise is grounded in real events of the twentieth century.

The story starts and ends with T’zee, the amoral dictator of an unnamed African nation struggling through its traumatic post-colonial afterbirth, but revolves around his young wife and youngest son, who each are coming to terms living with their larger-than-life husband and father and the roles they are supposed to play in this political drama. The former is a member of the new elite — but the limitations of gender and patriarchy force her into positions she might later regret. The latter is also a member of the new elite, the intellectual elite. During the typical educational sojourn young men of his class make in this era, T’zee’s son finds himself torn between his family and his morals. Politics, power, and ambition rule over both of them, force the wife and the son into decisions that are less of their own making than orders carried out under duress.

In three acts the reader witnesses the ebbs and flows of T’zee’s power, how his family fares in the pressure house of his politics, and the swiftness by which all their fates can change course.

This is an entertaining read. However, elements of its narrative promote a colonial logic which need to be addressed. T’zee is portrayed as a cruel and inept leader, one focused solely on his own aggrandizement and accumulation of wealth, at the expense of his people. His wife too is a woman focused solely on her own selfish advancement and fulfillment. The son is feckless and weak. Scenes of the city and the rural areas of this nation are memes of poverty and crime too often associated with the so-called “developing” or “under-developed” world, what has been classed so disparagingly as the “third world.”

I balk at depictions of African nations as cesspits of corruption, poverty, and crime. The implication that African peoples cannot rule themselves is one grounded so obviously in the so-called Civilizing Mission, that lynchpin of colonial logic; this is wholly inaccurate and stereotyping. I wish that elements of the story had addressed T’zee and his regime with more nuance; I wanted more decolonization in these pages. I cannot help but read as a historian, especially on a subject so close to my heart.

Still, this was a fun read and one I would suggest for casual consumption.

The Attic Child: A Novel by Lola Jaye

The Attic Child: A Novel by Lola Jaye

Something draws me to themes of tragedy and darkness in my choice of reading. The Attic Child might very well be one of the darker — if not darkest — novels I’ve read this year. This is a novel about strength, resilience shaped by necessity of survival and trauma; but it is not only the characters who must cultivate and wield this kind of strength, the novel requires the reader to be brave and hardy too. The reader must be to bear the suffering of reading about the suffering of others.

The pain is intentional. Jaye’s novel addresses, with unflinching realness, the lived trauma of colonialism by highlighting the literal theft of human beings European colonizers forced People of Color and colonial subjects to endure. The novel forces the reader to see how this history is very much present in our contemporary moment, that it is has caused intergenerational harm beyond measure.

As a historian of decolonization I am grateful for a novel like this — and happy to see that it was distributed on a platform as wide and well known as The Book of The Month Club (which is where I obtained it). We — those who come from parts of Europe’s former empires and those whose ancestors benefited from those empires, that is, everyone — need books like this, stories like this, voices like Jaye’s to declare that the grief and loss and wounds of colonialism are still not healed, closed, “over.”

The novel spans many generations and decades, beginning at the start of the twentieth century with a young boy who lives with his family on the African continent. He becomes the Attic Child, the first of many — children shut away, abused, neglected. He is robbed of his identity and his heritage. The story of a young woman who lives in a time closer to our present intertwines with his. The reader is aware there is a connection between the two, something hidden in the attic and the house in which both of these characters grow up, both of them “attic children.” The mystery the reader will find themselves embroiled in is how they are connected and why.

As the mystery unfolds it also deepens, its roots are long and twisted and dangerous. The mystery exposes the characters to pain and the possibility of new emotional wounds. The threat of scarring is real. But they are both hurtling through history and time and must live their lives. If there is a history lesson here, it is that we cannot escape history or making history, as we do so simply by living.

The novel does not pretend to heal the pain of this history. Reader should not expect to be bandaged or coddled in any way. But the novel does end as a historian might expect, with the lesson that history does not end, it goes on and on and therefore, that is itself a kind of closure. Perhaps, the ending is something more of a suture than a healing.

This is a tough and exacting book to read, but one which will not fail to provoke emotion. This is a significant novel.