Book Review: The Man Who Would Not See, by Rajorshi Chakraborti

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_man_who_would_not_seeWellington-based Indian author, Rajorshi Chakraborti, is presenting his latest novel in this year’s Auckland Writers Festival. The Man Who Would Not See, a current national bestseller, tells the story of two brothers who attempt to heal their severed past.

Ever since their paths crossed in Calcutta in 1986, Abhay and his older half-brother Ashim (Dada) have been the best of the friends, along with Ashim’s sister, Aranya (Didi). While waiting with their father (Baba) for their grandmother (Thamma) at a train station in Howrah, Abhay accompanies Ashim to the latter’s old house, where he, Didi, and their mother lived before she died of cancer. What was meant to be a half-hour trip turns into a night of panic, as the boys get lost on the dark streets in making their way back to platform 14. After this apparently nightmarish episode, Baba and Ma’s punishment is final: Dada is to be sent away to boarding school in Namkum, and his sister Didi to Hazaribagh to be closer to her brother. This opening section of the novel is set in the present tense, which effectively captures the immediacy of the catalyst moments before the two brothers part ways in 1988.

Fast forward to the present day, where Ashim and his daughter Tulti come to visit Abhay for Christmas and New Year. Abhay is now a stay-at-home writer living in Wellington with his wife Lena and daughter Mira. The brothers look forward to their reunion, but the emotional gulf between remains. Mirroring that search for a piece of his past in the dim streets of Howrah, Ashim brings back memories that cause Abhay to question why he ever moved abroad in the first place.

Abhay and Lena alternately narrate the rest of the novel’s chapters in the past tense. Embedded with text messages and emails, these chapters reveal the distinct ways in which husband and wife view Ashim’s impact on their daily lives. As Lena features as the outsider looking in, I found myself sympathising with her most of all. Abhay, Ashim, and Lena limit their vision in accordance with their relation to the other person. While Abhay desires to renew his bond with his half-brother (and vice versa), Lena finds Ashim to be a bearer of past grudges, mistrust, and superstition. This observation, however, comes about through Abhay’s conversations with Lena.

I thoroughly enjoyed Chakraborti’s first-person narration and non-italicised incorporation of the Bengali language. Such techniques convey the interplay between foreignness and belonging, the core of the immigrant experience. Indian food and music not only add cultural depth but also set the scene for the brothers’ memory retrieval.

In focusing on familial pain, Chakraborti skilfully hinges his narrative on the central question: what does it mean to truly “see”? A startling question that, after reading The Man Who Would Not See, might find an answer.

Reviewed by Azariah Alfante

The Man Who Would Not See
by Rajorshi Chakraborti
Published by Penguin
ISBN 9780143771784

Advertisements

Book Review: Mazarine, by Charlotte Grimshaw

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_mazarine.jpgWhen Frances Sinclair loses contact with her daughter Maya, travelling in Europe with her boyfriend Joe, the Auckland writer begins to feel alarmed as, ‘It was unusual. My girl had always kept in touch’.

But when she came home to find her ex-partner Nick inside her townhouse and an assault takes place, she borrows her neighbour’s car and drives away. ‘The only idea I had was to get out of town, to go south and find a nice motel where I could decide what to do next.’

Award winning author Charlotte Grimshaw is a wonderful descriptive writer and her use of short and long sentences intensifies her writing. ‘For half an hour, the downpour slowed and there was a last showing of watery evening light, then the squalls intensified, and huge rain roared on the corrugated iron roof. Still I lay on the sofa, not moving.’

Grimshaw takes the reader on a road trip to the Waikato where Frances meets Joe’s Mum Mazarine and they share their family concerns and Frances makes a decision to fly to London. ‘I’m going to tell everyone I’m doing research for a book. And when I find the kids, that’s what I’ll do, I’ll make a start on a novel set in London and Paris.’

Following the narrative thread left by her daughter, Frances travels through cities touched by terrorism and surveillance, joined at times by Mazarine, and was it just in her imagination that she sighted Nick around London?

This is a complex read in which the author touches on many modern issues, bringing them together in a gripping novel which has enough mystery to keep the reader guessing until the end.

I enjoyed this book and anyone who enjoys reading about modern family life, and taking a deeper look inside oneself will find this a rewarding read. ‘Two selves. One understood: the situation had changed and Mazarine’s reaction was rational, there was no reason for us to stick together, after all we had just as much chance of finding our children if we separated. This self processed : words, reasons, solutions. The other self didn’t understand and wouldn’t be calmed or soothed, this other self cried out and smashed its own face and beat its hands against-.’

Even the cover of this book is a joy, the beautiful design by Kate Barraclough is fresh and original. Mazarine explains in the book, ‘A Mazarine Blue is a kind of butterfly….. …..Actually, Frances, the male of the species is deep blue, but the female Mazarine is brown, which is kind of confusing’.

Charlotte Grimshaw is based in Auckland where she writes a monthly column in Metro magazine which won her a Qantas Media Award. She has written a number of novels and short stories which are featured in the back of this book alongside three pages of reviews.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Mazarine
by Charlotte Grimshaw
Published by Penguin Random House NZ
ISBN 9780143771821

 

Book Review: Walking to Jutland Street, by Michael Steven

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_walking_to_jutland_streetI met Michael Steven in person before I met him in his poetry. I was attending a poetry workshop and Steven was seemingly able to hold and recall random poets, poems, even languages at will.  I can’t even recall the author of the last book I read.

So I was excited to read his first full-length poetry collection, Walking to Jutland Street, and wondered if that same deep, intellectual mind would be on display. With two Latin-titled poems beginning this collection, it did not disappoint.

But it’s not just Latin which you’ll find scattered through his poetry. It’s French too, world events, Greek and Hindu mythology. And also web-slang (in the Dropped Pin series), drug-addiction, homelessness and a capturing of an often brutal and dangerous New Zealand male experience (for example in The Panel Shop where ‘Things happened in the yard.  I was encouraged/not to say what…’). Steven rejects any easy assessment of who he is or of his experiences.

Introduced with a prologue and farewelled with an epilogue, the poetry is divided into four (seemingly arbitrary) sections, including one titled Walking to Jutland Street. This is my favourite, as he ranges across subjects and memories like the jazz guitarist Emily Remler, the fall of the twin towers, the constraints of artificial intelligence and Brazilian police brutality.

To me, Steven is at his best when he takes a specific memory or event or image and moves in surprising ways away from it.  For example, in the beginning of the poem Dropped Pin: Latimer Square, Christchurch:

Spring was slow thawing my dreams that year.

Each night, watching the hills darken,

I saw the arm and shoulder

of a sad father turning away from the troubled

districts of his children.

That’s a poem about the fall of the twin towers. But also about a time Steven lived in a homeless shelter. And also, it isn’t really ‘about’ either (see above about rejecting easy assessments).

The thoughtfulness of his lines startle too.  In the poem Keepers Park a simple, sweet rhyme is suddenly halted by, well, complications.  Just like simple, sweet love can so often be:

of the light itself, as lovers do

when their love is brand new

and yet to be affected by complications.

Steven clearly aligns these poems with his own experience through the beginning epigraph from James K. Baxter, ‘I invent nothing.’  In an interview with the Otago Daily Times, Steven says he found in in James K. Baxter ‘a sense of permission to start writing about my own life.’

Some of Walking to Jutland Street is confronting and the experiences traumatic.  Many people die. Several poems are ‘in memorial’ of people who have died. I am glad that Steven survived to write this first collection.

Reviewed by Libby Kirkby-McLeod

Walking to Jutland Street
by Michael Steven
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531182

Book Review: All This By Chance, by Vincent O’Sullivan

cv_all_this_by_chanceAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

In 1947 Stephen leaves New Zealand, ‘A farm, Cows and mud and half a day by bus from anywhere,’ to train as a pharmacist in in post war London. It was there he met Eva, ‘Tall and quiet and calm, the words first occurring to him as he walked beside her’.

‘All this by chance ,as they kept saying to each other in those first months together… the sheer chance of a church social both had felt so awkward at as to run away from.’

Growing up with an English family Eva has suppressed much of her early life and Jewish background, but as the couple are about to return to New Zealand her Aunt Babcia (Ruth) is reunited with her, and stirs memories of their life in Europe and Hitler’s Germany.

There are a number of characters in the book and the author has listed the key people in the front of the book with the year of their birth, which helps the reader keep the storyline in context, as it progresses through the chapters from 1947 to 2004, and then back to 1038 for the finale. Stephen and Eva’s son and daughter deal with their family history completely differently, with David keen to delve into a Jewish way of life, while Lisa is content to ignore her mother’s background.

Born in Auckland in 1937 Vincent O’Sullivan is the author of two previous novels Let the River Stand which won the 1994 Montana NZ Book Award, and Believers to the Bright Coast which was shortlisted for the 2001 Tasmania Pacific Region prize. He has also written a number of plays, short stories and poems and worked as an editor and critic.

Now living in Dunedin, O’Sullivan was made a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2000 Queens Birthday Honours and was the New Zealand poet laureate 2013-2015.

All This By Chance is a beautifully written book which requires concentration to capture the moving family story told by three generations, of the horrors of the holocaust and the burden of secrets never shared. Keely O’Shannessy has designed a very fitting cover which invites the reader down the path through the trees into a family who has tried to forget the atrocities of war, but finds the following generations becoming fascinated with their background history, and wanting to learn more.

I enjoyed this book, especially the author’s choice of words and phrases such as ‘Against the wall a gas heater she fed with shillings and florins purred when the weather turned’, and anyone who enjoys family history will find it a great read.

Reviewed By Lesley McIntosh

All This By Chance
by Vincent O’Sullivan
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561797

 

Book Review: A Dash of Belladonna, by J Rackham

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_a_dash_of_belladonnaMagic and potions abound in this adventure set in modern New Zealand. The protagonist is 14 year old Charlotte, a potion apprentice who arrives to further her studies under the best potion maker of them all: Mikaere Tahuriorangi. Shortly after she moves in to his rural dwelling, complete with a garden brimming with herbs both familiar and strange, she finds herself at the centre of an international magical crisis and her life is at stake. Around the world, potion apprentices have been disappearing, a rogue potion-maker is suspected of kidnapping them to use their blood for his own super potion and Charlotte is next on his list.

What follows is an adventure full of schemes, plans, failures and deals made with the magical agency The Order. Charlotte continues her learning and stumbles upon her ability to call up the spirit of the highly dangerous and poisonous Belladonna plant. This unusual ability, though perilous, has potential to help the Order catch their villain, so she sets about learning how to control the Belladonna spirit. Things invariably get out of hand and as they do so she comes to understand herself better, realising her limits and accepting that it is okay to ask for help when you are unsure.

Despite the story being told from Charlotte’s point of view, I personally didn’t feel a strong connection to her. This may be due to the style of narration, which is “Charlotte M Underwood’s collection of letters, notes and relevant excerpts related to the incident now known as ‘A Dash of Belladonna.’” While the mix of alternating styles and viewpoints a great idea to move the story along, I found these jumps distracted somewhat from the flow of the story; one minute we are reading one of Charlotte’s letters, the next an agent’s report, then onto a progress report from one of her tutors and back to more letters, some with herbology notes included.

That said, the writing is strong, the plot has a good pace with great moments of tension to keep you guessing, especially when there are magical spirits who destroy everything around them and uncertain alliances. The cast of characters, Charlotte included, are interesting and with well-rounded personalities and I wanted to keep reading to see how the adventure would resolve. Resolve it certainly did, and Charlotte does learn her lessons (both personal and academic) and finds a new level of understanding about her place in the world where magic and non-magic can live together.

From a book design perspective, the cover is brilliant – bright, lively and engaging, and the spell pages add a nice touch, however they could do with being enlarged and made clearer. On the whole, A Dash of Belladonna is certainly an entertaining read that will appeal to readers who enjoy contemporary fantasy and who wish for their own magic wand.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

A Dash of Belladonna
by J Rackham
Published by Lasavia Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9780473397654

Book Review: The Beat of the Pendulum: A found novel, by Catherine Chidgey

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_beat_of_the_pendulumThe latest from Catherine Chidgey is a very demanding book to get into. But it is certainly worth persevering.

She describes it as a found novel – I guess that as objets trouves can form pictorial art works, so this is a collection of found words which combine to form a picture of a year in the life of the novelist and her family and friends.

When you look at a picture composed in this way it’s often quite easy to see where the pieces connect, what drew the artist to them and how the composition developed.  I found it much harder to work out the connections, particularly in the first two or three months of the book.

Also it’s perhaps a bit of a writerly conceit to say the words were found, rather than collected or recorded – surely they must have been in some format which made them easy to retrieve, given the complexity of the conversations and how well they ring true. Or else Chidgey is just remarkable at recreating these moments. Or maybe, like Topsy in the old (and not PC) story it ‘just growed’.

Many of the people in her book spring to life through these snippets of conversation. Her mother, with increasing memory loss and confusion, springs to life – but so does the way in which memory, both present and lost, affects all of us. It’s particularly poignant as Chidgey pulls no punches in how difficult, frustrating, annoying and heart-breaking it can be to live with this as part of your life.

Of course it’s not just about memory, it’s about love, friendship, child development, relationships and all of the tiny or huge interactions we have with people every day.

It’s a compelling read, and even though at times I wanted to put it down because I really could not work out who was talking at the time, I persevered. Not because there’s a tidy conclusion, but because I wanted to hear all those stories and see where they went.

As a year in the life of Catherine Chidgey and her family and friends, I think it’s an absolutely fascinating book. Take the time you need to read it. If you want to whizz through it, resist the urge. Take it slowly and you’ll be rewarded.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Beat of the Pendulum : a found novel
by Catherine Chidgey
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561704

Book Review: The Cage, by Lloyd Jones

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_cageYou can always rely on Lloyd Jones to come up with something new. He never writes about the same thing and he rarely, in my opinion, writes in the same way (although he might argue with that).

The idea for this latest novel was brought together during a visit to Germany where his daughter was working with refugees, while he was a resident in the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin programme in 2016-2017.

The Cage is a horrific work. Two strangers arrive in a small NZ town, unable or unwilling to provide information on how they got there. The hotel owner takes them in initially, but a series of events culminates in their living outdoors in a cage. The prototype for the cage was the strangers’ own creation but the reality of its growth was brought about by the actions of the hotelier, his family, his staff and the townspeople.

The strangers effectively become prisoners. The narrator is responsible for recording their activities and reporting to the Trust which has been set up to keep them contained until they are told the whole story. The cage has a key, but it’s apparently missing so the strangers can’t be released. And then, no-one wants to release them until they know their history. Paranoia about the unknown is ever-present, and horribly well drawn by Lloyd Jones – so much so that it’s almost possible to think that you, the reader, can understand why the locals behave as they do. I say almost, deliberately, as I found myself ranting at the narrator to do the right thing – get a pair of tinsnips and cut the damn cage open just for starters.

At one point, quite far along in the story and I won’t give any spoilers about why, the narrator asks ‘What is the question? The question is this. At what point did I know what was going to happen?The second question. Why did I not do anything to prevent it?’

From very early in this novel, I was reminded of the work by Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning. Though possibly that’s because the hotel cook is called Viktor, so maybe this is not coincidental at all, nor as insightful as I first thought it might be.

But that’s what comes through: how easy it is to ignore the bad or evil things around us; how easy to pretend that something essentially bad can be construed as being “for their own good”; how hard it is to stand up against what we know, deep inside us, is wrong.

This novel is a modern fable, allegory, call it what you will. It’s certainly a hard read, but it throws up age-old questions about trust, responsibility, speaking up, justice and injustice, and above all taking action when you can.

Steel yourself, and read it.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Cage 
by Lloyd Jones
Published by  Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780143772323

Sarah Forster reviewed an event featuring Lloyd Jones at the NZ Festival Writers & Readers Festival – check it out here.