Life and Death, in Life and in Literature

Without intending it, I have been reading a lot of macabre things recently. This includes the more usual crime stories with violent ends and psychiatrically-challenged characters, but has also tended towards discussions of death, accounts of real or fictional crimes, and a lot about anatomy and dissection. I wonder if it stems from my recent project at work, where I was researching crime across the UK and barristers that specialise in prosecuting international crime, such as genocide and torture in developing countries. That my morbid interest leaked into my personal reading shouldn’t have surprised me but it has helped me form a more complete picture of things – see previous entries about the domestic criminal justice system in England, both fictional accounts exploring war crimes and biographical accounts of suffering in war, and medical and anatomical writings. It swirls together into some really interesting but depressing themes. The last couple of books that I have been reading elevated some of these themes for me into something more comprehensive that demonstrates two different answers to the question, Why are we alive and what is the point of it all?

Sue Black, All That Remains: A Life in Death (2018)
Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2009)

Both Sue Black’s All That Remains: A Life in Death and Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead bring you into the very forefront of a world-wise, brave, and morally-sure older woman. I was thrilled to be led by these women through two extremely different books – one a fictional crime jaunt through a Polish village, another a series of stories illustrating the varied career of one of the world’s top forensic pathologists. One of the glaring differences is something I want to get out of the way quickly: Tokarczuk is a fantastic, sensitive writer that is a master of her craft; Black is a brilliant, intelligent scientist trying to share some of the incredible things she has seen and done, and who occasionally stumbles into some less-skilled narration and storytelling. The difference is being led through the woods by a mystically-gifted poet that knows all the tappings of William Blake against sitting in a warm pub with a wickedly sharp and witty Scottish madam who has many a yarn to tell. You cannot compare their skills fairly on this front.

On the other hand, both writers have a frank attitude to death, both natural and violent, and a kinship with the natural order that stemmed from extremely different places. Black is an experienced forensic anthropologist that specialises in teaching anatomical dissection, assisting police investigations (domestic and international), as well as publishing medical textbooks. Similarly, Tokarczuk demonstrates a deep interest in the human body – both in this book but especially in some of the stories in her other book, Flights. Their books share a fascinating blended attitude of a no-nonsense acceptance of death as a natural end to life, while demonstrating revulsion of cruelty and unnatural deaths caused by other people. Tokarczuk’s protagonist in Drive Your Plow is an animal lover that protests the hunting community around her while demonstrating a lack of fear surrounding human endings, while Black deals daily with death and helps to punish those who torture others. The result is a combination of wry black humour and some gruesome paragraphs and tales, with a generous dollop of the charming moments that remind you why life is so attractive. For example, Black describes her reaction to examining a donation of “human remains”:

Before opening the beg, I made notes, took photos of the bag and donned mask and gloves to ensure that, if these were human remains, there would be no DNA cross-contamination. I admit to being a little nervous as I unwrapped them. But within seconds I was exclaiming under my breath, ‘Oh, for the love of the wee man!’ as I found myself looking at the butchered rib and shoulder bone of a large cow. [159]

Elsewhere, she details vulgar nicknames the team gave each other and some of the pranks they enjoyed playing during police training sessions. Tokarczuk’s lightness is more subtly imbued in her novel, as she brings poetry to the story in lines such as:

Here the winter does a wonderful job of wrapping everything in white cotton wool, and shortens the day to the utmost, so that if you make the mistake of staying up too late at night, you might awake in the Gloom of the following afternoon, which – I frankly admit – has been happening to me more and more often since last year. Here the sky hangs over us dark and low, like a dirty screen, on which clouds are fighting fierce battles. [33]

Blake suited the mood that evening: we felt as if the sky had sunk very low over the Earth, and hadn’t left much space or much air for living Creatures to survive. Low, dark clouds had been scudding across the sky all day, and now, late in the evening, they were rubbing their wet bellies against the hills. [80]

I had often wondered if the people who did the television programming were trying to display their extensive astrological knowledge. [104]

I truly admire the translator’s efforts in this book – Antonia Lloyd-Jones – bringing the poetry of the Polish to bear in English as well. Another wonderful moment was a Mushroom Pickers’ Ball where she and her friend dress as Red Riding Hood and her Wolf:

I drove the Samurai up to Oddball’s house and admired his peonies while I waited for him. He soon appeared in the doorway. I was speechless with wonder. He was wearing black lace-up boots, white stockings and a sweet flowery dress with a little apron. On his head, tied under his chin with a bow, was a little red hood.
He was in a bad mood. He settled in the passenger seat and didn’t say a single wold the whole way to the firehouse. He held his red headgear on his knees and only put it back on once we had stopped outside the firehouse.
‘As you can see, I have absolutely no sense of humour,’ he said. [196-7]

The mystery of the novel is not the strongest, but the thing I loved most about this book was her interweaving of poetic concepts and moods into an extended story. Each new character, every new place revealed to us, each surprising twist and turn in the narrator’s personality felt like a new stanza in an anthology. Tokarczuk’s love and admiration for Blake was palpable and he was understood in a way I rarely see – innocence, terror, love, death, hell, and the bliss of heaven all woven together in a complex, straightforward image for all to admire. It was a real joy to experience Blake in a new way like this. His respect and love for living things, especially those most innocent creatures – animals and children – is evident in all his writing. Likewise, Drive Your Plough exemplifies a philosophy of “Love” that is beautifully mad in the selfish man-made context of the modern world. Black’s vision of a world where people are able to acknowledge death as a natural end to their lives provided one rational approach to human life – where bodies are treated with respect as they are used for organ donation or to teach the next generations of medical students and scientists. Those that disrespect either the living or the dead before they reach their natural end are found out with the aid of scientific investigation, informed by anatomical methodology. Tokarczuk’s (and Blake’s) world is a spritually-touched realm where no creature harms another and divine punishment is meted out to those that disobey by God or His operators on Earth. These differing orders of justice were presented through narrative examples of previous suffering and what had been done to correct it – often with grisly details. I was particularly tickled by Tokarczuk’s inclusion of references to the old medieval and early modern animal trials, where animals were put on trial in human courts for committing crimes. Likewise, people committing horrific crimes (to the point they start to resemble mindless animals) are put on trial in Black’s book, to answer for the cruelties inflicted on others.

Each books came with moments too physically revolting to read comfortably and you cannot get away from either without feelings deeply moved by the cruelty within their pages. The comfort provided lies in the efforts by those people willing to band together and demonstrate greater courage, kindness and love in the face of horrific crimes. One heroine relies on scientific rationality, the other protagonist studies astrological charts and signs in nature, but both seek to find order and reason behind the death that surrounds them. I have been given a lot to think about.

I wan to end on some of the more beautiful examples of Tokarczuk’s skill in Drive Your Plow, as I was so moved by the charming, if quirky, depictions of the villagers. I could replicate the whole book in this way but I want to share two particular moments that capture both the unusual humour and creepiness of the book. The first is a description of some neighbours as the protagonist is touring the village on her rounds:

The smallest house, below a damp copse, had recently been bought by a noisy family from Wroclaw. […] The house was going to be rebuilt and transformed into a miniature Polish manor – one day they’d add columns and a porch, and at the back end there’d be a swimming pool. So their father told me. […] Their family name was Weller. I spent a long time wondering if I should give them a name of my own, but then I realised that this was one of the two cases known to me where the official surname fitted the Person. They really were the people from the well – they’d fallen into it long ago and had now arranged their lives at the bottom of it, thinking the well was the entire world. [62-3]

The second is from a scene in the middle of night in her own home:

     There stood my Mother, in a flowery summer frock, with a handbag slung over her shoulder. She was anxious and confused.
‘For God’s sake, what are you doing here, Mummy?’ I shouted in surprise.
She opened her mouth as if to answer, and tried moving her lips for a while, but did not produce any sound. Then she gave up. Her eyes roamed fitfully across the walls and ceiling of the boiler room. She didn’t know where she was. Once again she tried to say something, and once again she gave up.
‘Mummy,’ I whispered, trying to catch her fugitive gaze.
I was angry wither, for she had died a long time ago, and that’s not how long-gone mothers should behave. [87]

If that doesn’t convince you to go pick up a copy, I don’t know what will.

Similar books to Drive Your Plow: Tove Jansson, The Winter Book; Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries; Richard Power, The Overstory; Kapka Kassabova, Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe.

Similiar books to All That Remains: Svetlana Alexievich, The Unwomanly Face of WarThe Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken; Olga Tokarczuk, Flights; Tom Reynolds, Blood Sweat and Tea.


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An Unlikely Double Feature: Humans²

I was surprised to find so many parallels between the two books I read recently. Sometimes reading books sequentially causes you to approach one from the other and I feel as though a month of popping in and out of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind really got me thinking about humanity and people from a fresh perspective. After that, treating myself to the third in the Enders Game series, Xenocide, I was surprised to find many of the ideas of Harari’s popular science hit interacted well with this sci-fi masterpiece.


Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011)
Orson Scott Card, Xenocide (1991)

Some of the similarities were smaller, like the equal treatment of Male and female within a broader discussion of human. In Sapiens, this was because Harari was more interested in discussing humans as a biological curiosity rather than people as characters or stories. In Xenocide, Card is again drawing upon a perspective that views humans by contrast to several alien species. These two texts – one popular-science nonfiction, the other popular science fiction – take on a similar mission to determine the nature of humanity by analysing it against similar intelligent life. Where Harari talks about Sapiens (the prevalent homo sapiens or garden-variety human of the modern world), he discusses its differences from the other kinds of human species that we seem to have destroyed to ensure our own survival. Similarly, in Card’s fictional universe, humans are on the brink of committing xenocide (genocide of an alien species) by destroying the only other intelligent alien species in the universe, to protect their own survival. I think the story resonates with a ring of truth for three very reason that the destructive survival instincts of all people are well known to any reader.

In taking on the theme of humanity as their central focus, both books make an effort to marry philosophy and science in discussions about happiness, gods, science, and the consequences of developing technology. Of course, in Xenocide the timeline of the multiple disasters facing the scientists of the colony planet Lusitania is condensed to heighten dramatic tension, but the issues are familiar to anyone reading about the future of humanity: the development of new crops that can survive worsening external circumstances like climate and disease, finding ways to cripple viruses that become increasingly sophisticated, and how to interfere with an enemy armed with nuclear weapons. These issues appear in both books in different guises, as central fears facing the entire race. Where Xenocide includes alien races also seeking to ensure their own survival, even at the detriment of humanity, we only have to consider in Sapiens how homo sapiens destroyed the other varieties of human beings and how we fight amongst the subdivisions created in our own race.

I found that the two books also suffered for their ambition, as they tried to cover too much while leaving some of the most interesting and moving topics only lightly scratched. I would have wanted to read more of Harari’s thoughts on the future of biotechnology and on Buddhism. Understandable when your score is so wide as human history, things inevitably get missed out, but the pacing felt strangely off. Likewise, Card introduces so many interesting factors at play in a grand struggle for survival, but the deus ex machina solution felt rushed and only tricked all that came before. In both cases, the was a tendency towards sweeping statements and the grandiose, which felt a bit trite. Harari cited some parts of his discussion but left huge generalisations left to your imagination, which really irked the academic in me. There were also silly bits of terminology that kept being teamed in, quite unnaturally. Harari insisted on using the term Sapiens instead of humans, which was initially helpful when discussing the history of various species of human, but later on felt like a marketing gimmick. Card kept releasing the same hierarchy of intelligence in dealing with aliens – ramen, varelse, framling. It served more as a forced reminder of his prior world-building that tore me out of my enjoyment of the story, like a recap or expository sequence in a TV series would.

One moment in Xenocide particularly reminded me of Sapiens; Ender’s sister Valentine is trying to describe how genetic behaviours inevitably control human behaviour, as part of an explanation to one of the alien races that :

“Our whole history, all that I’ve ever found in all my wanderings as an itinerant historian before I finally unhooked myself from this reproductively unavailable brother of mine and had a family– it can all be interpreted as people blindly acting out those genetic strategies. We get pulled in those two directions.
“Our great civilizations are nothing more than social machines to create the ideal female setting, where a woman can count on stability; our legal and moral codes that try to abolish violence and promote permanence of ownership and enforce contracts–those represent the primary female strategy, the taming of the male.
“And the tribes of wandering barbarians outside the reach of civilization, those follow the mainly male strategy. Spread the seed. Within the tribe, the strongest, most dominant males take possession of the best females, either through formal polygamy or spur-of-the-moment copulations that the other males are powerless to resist. [Xenocide, 400]

In Sapiens, Harari discusses these genetic limitations placed on human beings and how we are beginning to surpass them:

The implication has been that, no matter what their efforts and achievements, Sapiens are incapable of breaking free of their biologically determined limits. But at the dawn of the twenty-first century, this is no longer true: Homo sapiens is transcending those limits. [Sapiens, 398]

In Xenocide, an intelligent virus manipulates the local alien population to behave according to its needs. In Sapiens, Harari describes how people have likewise influenced animal and plant breeding to suit their needs:

Sapiens exerted peculiar selective pressures on chickens that caused the fat and slow ones to proliferate, just as pollinating bees select flowers, causing the bright colourful ones to proliferate. [399]

I was fascinated by the different ways in which Harari and Card approach this same phenomenon of human taking control of their environments and shaping it to their needs. Where Card takes it one step further, into dramatic tension, is the implication of something non-human trying to do this same thing – introducing a competing intelligence. Therein lies to the future that Harari hints at – quite dramatically, also – as he describes a superior class of genetically and mechanically enhanced humans that are not subject to Sapiens limitations. Humans version 2.0, perhaps.

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Subverting Expectations: The English Criminal Justice System

From the moment I heard about this book, I knew I would be reading it. Anonymous barrister regaling the public with reasons why our legal system is broken? Count me in! I should add, listening to barristers alternately brag and complain about the state of the English Bar used to be my day job. So I was keen to see what I could learn from a comprehensive account of the current state of criminal justice in England.


The Secret Barrister, Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken (2018)

The Secret Barrister (SB) has a very approachable style, full of snark and witticisms, along with self-deprecation and charm. So far, the SB has been skilfully hiding anything about their identity, including name, age, and gender, to the delight of all. Everyone like a good mystery and that is part of the appeal of the book – having a name attached to this book would undermine the exciting feel of an exposé, even if the information is not exactly hard to find outside of this book. I am aware that not many people spend their day-to-day lives in the legal industry, so while I found it jarring that the book often dipped into a popular, jovial voice, I appreciate that this may help make the material more accessible. Sometimes it really works well:

To an extra-terrestrial touching down outside a city Crown Court, our way of resolving disputes where an individual is alleged to have breached our central social code would be unfathomable. Get two people with plummy accents, stick them in black capes, shove horsehair wigs on their heads, arm them with books of rules weighing as much as a grown pig and use them as proxies to verbally joust in front of a bewigged sexagenarian in a big purple gown, while twelve people yanked off the street sit and watch and try to make sense of it all and decide who’s in the right. The winner gets nothing. The loser gets locked up in a concrete box. [254-258]

Elsewhere, it feels trite and somewhat sloppy in its attempts to pull heartstrings:

James’ story, unlike the cases in the preceding chapters, is not real. But it could be. James could be your parent, your grandparent, your spouse, your sibling, your best friend, your child. He could be you. Every twist of systemic injustice is one that we see played out in the lives of ordinary people every single day. [4586-4589]

This, and other parts like it, I found to be strangely gung-ho British in tone. It felt like a rallying call to arms like the sort you get in McCains adverts. I couldn’t read this part and not imagine myself to be a typical middle-class white Englishman:

We don’t want to think about being a witness to our husband’s stabbing. Or supporting our wife through her rapist’s trial. Or receiving the phone call reporting that our straight-A son’s exam celebrations got a bit lairy and ended in him taking his mate’s dad’s Jag out for a spin, wrapping it round a lamp post and killing his three passengers. Or our grandfather being accused of sexually abusing young boys as a Scout leader in the 1950s. Such things don’t happen to people like us. The criminal courts are not the place for people like us. Legal aid isn’t something that is ever going to affect people like us. [4771-4775]

The emphasis on “people like us” shows the SB’s hand quite plainly, I felt. This book is not written for those who we typically imagine to go through the justice system – those from council housing, from first-generation immigrant families, from kids caught up in gang warfare. It is a plea to the educated middle classes who might have some sway over their MPs, who might be able to persuade the government to fix the system. It’s fair enough, of course it is important that things change, but it felt a bit conniving to spend half of the poor trying to stir pity for the most helpless members of society that enter the system, only to then bring out the trumpets and blast that:

The superiority of the way we do criminal justice – not like those crazy Americans – is culturally ingrained. If people learn one thing about our justice system, it’s that it’s the Best in the World. [4820-4823]

There is little space in this book for subtlety, which shouldn’t have been surprising consider it was written by a barrister – used to manipulating any set of facts and figures to suit their cause. I do not argue with the merits of the message, only with its presentation in stark black and white: heroes working in the legal system and doing their best despite the strain – barristers, solicitors, the CPS – and the villains of politics and media. doing everything they can to tear a beautiful thing apart. This narrative might be effective for convincing people to put pressure on the government, to change the incentives of papers to print certain stories – but it feels too heavy-handed. For example, while much is made of the way that tabloid report on news of sentencing and barristers defending criminals, the SB does not mention the broadsheets that correctly account for the seemingly-lenient decisions made by judges. It also felt very strange to read this book and for the SB to hardly mention the massive role of racism in sentencing decisions. Perhaps the SB felt it was an obvious point, perhaps it was not central to the argument for improving funding, since it isn’t something that could be improved by pumping money in. It felt like a glaring absence. It also felt strange to discuss the adversarial and inquisitorial systems of criminal justice as though they are two binary options, as though combining them somehow is not possible. Again, it felt like classic barrister-tactics – set up a straw man and knock it down to prove your point. Debating 101, if I may.

That said, the SB does a fantastic job of presenting the structure of the criminal justice system – dividing each faction into a different chapter where an in-depth analysis demonstrates how things have gone wrong everywhere possible. Have lots more to say but not much time for it so will have to leave it there but I really enjoyed learning more about the legal system and feel that it was a revealing and fascinating read. I really hope that it encourages people to take more interest in the crippled state of the criminal justice system before things get even worse!

Similar books: Tom Reynolds, Blood, Sweat and Tea: Real Life Adventures in an Inner-city Ambulance.

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The Androgynous Protagonist

Some books have a knack for surprising you. When I first came across Enders Game, I was expecting a battle story about the complexity of, say, The Hunger Games – entertaining, grouping, but ultimately no more complex than children and teenagers locked in unreasonably violent battles. Instead, Orson Scott Card’s series about a futuristic world, where source travel is normal, though uncommon, and humanity faces its first dealings with alien races, led me through unexpected philosophical quandaries. Like the protagonist, Card’s readers must learn to orient their minds to reassess their fundamental assumptions, less that up is now down, more that alien is not necessarily inhuman.


Orson Scott Card, Enders Game (1985), Speaker for the Dead (1986)

To my knowledge, Card’s first two books of the Enders Game series can be quite divisive – the first is a traditionally, even typically “masculine” story, where a young protagonist, Ender, faces challenges and forces far beyond his abilities and circumstances that are designed to test his mettle. The twist at the end does nothing to reduce this, though we see how it is Ender’s combination of his “masculine” and “feminine” strengths that allow him to prevail. In the second book, this dichotomy of stereotypically gendered traits is developed further, producing a person that seems supra-human and this able to represent humanity as it should be. This ability to transcend normal human weaknesses, especially done in a way that does not come across as a lazily-written powerful hero is the core of Card’s ability to put down a philosophically-charged narrative.

Ender is the Goldilocks child of his family, as his brother Peter is an archetype of male characteristics, to the point of vicious, violent behaviour and a need for power. On the ought hand, his sister Valentine is gentle, emotionally-intelligent, and easily manipulated. Ender is chosen because he has managed to find a balance between male and female, something his siblings only manage much later than him. While able to demonstrate extremely violent behaviour when necessary for survival, Ender had no wish to hurt anyone. In the following exchange between Ender and his beloved sister, Card demonstrates the connection between understanding and love which torments Ender as the adults around him force him again and again into situations where he must destroy others to survive.

“Every time, I’ve won because I could understand the way my enemy thought. From what they did. I could tell what they thought I was doing, how they wanted the battle to take shape. And I played off that. I’m very good at that. Understanding how other people think.”
“The curse of the Wiggin children,” She joked, but it frightened her, that Ender might understand her as completely as he did his enemies. Peter always understood her, or at least thought he did, but he was such a moral sinkhole that she never had to feel embarrassed when he guessed her worst thoughts. But Ender–she did not want him to understand her. It would make her naked before him. She would be ashamed. “You don’t think you can beat the buggers unless you know them.”
“It goes deeper than that. Being here alone with nothing to do, I’ve been thinking about myself, too. Trying to understand why I hate myself so badly.”
“No, Ender.”
“Don’t tell me ‘No, Ender.’ It took me a long time to realize that I did, but believe me, I did. Do. And it came down to this: In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them in the way that they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them–”
“You beat them.” For a moment she was not afraid of his understanding.
“No, you don’t understand. I destroy them. I make it impossible for them to ever hurt me again. I grind and grind them until they don’t exist.” [EG, 251-2]

To Ender, this is a devastating tragedy, that his desire to survive trumps his caring for others. To his superiors at the Battle School, this is what makes him an ultimate weapon. While this is used in the first book as the force that drives Ender through impossible scenarios, winning our admiration for his strength and resolve, the second book elevates his power to mercy and forgiveness, rather than destruction and war. You come to love Ender, as he survives adversities that would crush a normal person. It felt sweet to see that his life – that feels like such a curse to him – becomes something beautiful that he can feel proud of and ultimately be rewarded for.

In Speaker for the Dead, Card conceives of an altruistic output for Ender’s unique ability: Ender writes a book that transforms the frightening alien enemy into something that can be loved and understood. He writes anonymously about the alien race in a sympathetic way, aided by the last survivor of the race he nearly destroyed, and humanity comes to see the destruction of this race as the tragedy Ender knew it to be. In the process, Ender himself enters legends as a monstrous figure that massacred a great race, while the book he writes becomes scripture for a new religion, the Speakers for the Dead. This process of Speaking is a new style of memorial service, where Ender speaks the truth of a person’s life, good, bad, and ugly, so that everyone present can completely know and live that person. It is not a pleasant process, not falsely comforting like the loving things said at a funeral, but the catharsis is undeniable. His Speaking in the book, describing an alcoholic, wife-beater in a way that did not excuse his actions but went some way towards explaining how he came to be a disgusting individual was powerful reading. Card clearly understands people extremely well, not merely in a cause and effect kind of way, but in the way that every intelligent being, however repulsive, alien, or strange, can be made human through understanding and compassion. This is the crux of the brilliant plot of the second book, as Ender is called to Speak three unique deaths, where for the first time in millennia, humans have been murdered by aliens. His successful investigation is only possible because he seeks to understand the alien race, rather than interpreting their behaviour from a human perspective. As in the first book, he is able to approach scenarios from a fresh, unbiased protective, in order to get new results.

The power of Speaking is shown to be a beautiful thing, even if it must first cause pain. Ender Speaks the death of a violent alcoholic man, Marcão, in the process uncovering the mysteries and lies of the small community, allowing its inhabitants a fresh start together. His importance in their lives wins him great admiration and respect, as well as a family, without his meaning for it. One example of the good he causes is in the thawing of Marcão’s wife, Novinha, which allows her children to feel her love once again:

Ela embraced her mother, and for the first time in years she felt warmth in her mother’s response. Because the lies between them were gone. The Speaker had erased the barrier, and there was no reason to be tentative and cautious anymore.
“You’re thinking about that damnable Speaker even now, aren’t you?” whispered her mother.
“So are you,” Ela answered.
Both their bodies shook with Mother’s laugh. “Yes.”
Then she stopped laughing and pulled away, looked Ela in the eyes. “Will he always come between us?”
“Yes,” said Ela. “Like a bridge he’ll come between us, not a wall.” [SftD, 321]

One of my favourite messages that I come across again and again in stories and films and shows is that of finding the good in anybody, however nasty or rotten they might seem, through understanding their story. The concepts of good or evil people that you grow up with pale by comparison to the depths of motives that draw people into performing good or evil acts. It resonates with me when authors can capture this in a subtle way, such as in Ender’s speaking of Marcão, where he does not excuse his violence, but by placing it in context reminds us that Marcão was also human and that his choices were not from an inherent evil but stemmed from many circumstances around him, some outside of his control. Rather than exoneration, the process of Speaking aims for understanding.

I was also amazed by Card’s ability to play around with the humans’ changing perspective of their alien neighbours, their tendency towards suspicion and fear, and the way that Ender approaches diplomacy. Both the alien and human characters in Card’s books are written with an interesting blend of strength and sensitivity that brings you to admire them as they battle with the problems surrounding them. Where the first book fixates on strategy and the human relationships of battle and war, the second carries this over to a new battleground of family and community. The complex politics on both bureaucratic and familial arenas are endlessly fascinating, as Ender navigates his way through thorny personalities in order to get to the truth. I have always enjoyed stories about people more than stories that are only concerned with plot, but I found that Card had mastery over both.

Full of gnarly and loveable characters, complete with interesting philosophical ideas about what defines something as human, and equipped with gripping stories, this series has something for everyone.

Similar to: Ursula le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea; Isaac Asimov, Foundation; J. D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey; William Golding, Lord of the Flies; Natsuki Takaya, Fruits Basket.


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A Russian Fairytale Mystery: The Chivalric Detective

winter queen

Boris Akunin, The Winter Queen (1998)

It has been a good long while since I had the pleasure of reading a mystery. This one struck me as very unusual, perhaps because it is so undeniably Russian in character. High drama, heroics, and sympathetic villainy, Boris Akunin knows how to spin a yarn.

Unlike many mystery novels, the unrealistic events and unlikely success of the protagonist only emphasise that the mystery is not the central point here. It is easy to guess very early on which characters were good or evil and what was going on, but also to enjoy the story immensely anyway. I could not help but be delighted by the strange path the hero took to solve the puzzle. This is not to say that Akunin (the pen name of Grigori Chkhartishvili) cannot create a clever mystery, but to emphasise that his focus was elsewhere. Consider the intelligence behind this trick:

The large room completely filled with tables was in absolute turmoil. About a dozen officials were dashing about, fussing over stacks of neat white cards set out across the tables. Erast Fandorin snatched one up, and caught a brief glimpse of barely discernible figures resembling Chinese hieroglyphs. Before his very eyes the hieroglyphs disappeared and the card was left absolutely blank.
‘What devil’s work is this?’ exclaimed the general, panting heavily. ‘Some kind of invisible ink?’
‘I’m afraid it is far worse than that, Your Excellency,’ said a gentleman with the appearance of a professor, examining a card against the light. ‘Captain, didn’t you say the card-file was kept in something like a photographic booth?’
‘Precisely so, sir,’ Belozerov confirmed.
‘And can you recall what kind of lighting it had? Perhaps a red lamp?’
‘Absolutely right. It was a red electrical lamp.’
‘Just as I thought. Alas, General Mizinov, the card archive has been lost to us and cannot be restored.’
‘How’s that?’ the general exclaimed furiously. ‘Not good enough, Mr Collegiate Counsellor, you must think of something. You’re a master of your trade, a leading light . . .’
‘But not a magician, Your Excellency. The cards were obviously treated with a special solution and it is only possible to work with them in red light. Now the layer to which the characters were applied has been exposed to daylight. Very clever, you must admit. It’s the first time I’ve come across anything of the sort.’ [193]

The unrealistic, almost childish adventures in the story is not for lack of sophistication but is born out of a desire to entertain. Akunin demonstrates a lighthearted indulgence in his writing, as he is happy to sacrifice his potential for, say, the serious villainy of a crime drama for the theatrics and humour of James Bond, The Pink Panther, or even Mr Bean. He allows space for slapstick antics in the midst of dire circumstances, such as in the following exchange just after an enemy is fatally shot and dumped off a pier:

the only English I know is “bottul viskey” and “moov yoor ass” – a midshipman I used to know taught me that. It means give me a bottle of the strong stuff and look sharp about it. I ask that porter, the English shrimp, about Miss Olsen, and he jabbers something in his own lingo and shakes his head and points somewhere backwards. As if to say she’s gone, but he doesn’t know where. Then I take a stab at you: “Fandorin, I say, Fandorin, moov yoor ass.” And then – mind you, don’t take offence, now – then he opened his eyes wide in amazement. Your name obviously means something indecent in English. [159]

On top of this, the cast consist of stereotypes and striking weirdos, from the temptress to the innocent virgin, the naive hero to the sinister, smiling villain. We are given fat and lazy ministers, rich anarchic young students, and even a facsimile of Sherlock Holmes:

‘It’s the deductive method, my dear Fandorin. Building up the overall picture from a few small details. The main thing is not to rush things, not to jump to the wrong conclusion, if the available evidence allows for different interpretations. But we can talk about that later, we’ll have plenty of time. And as far as Grushin is concerned, it’s very simple. Your landlady bowed to me almost down to the floor and called me “Excellency” – that’s one. As you can see, I do not even remotely resemble an “Excellency”, nor am I one yet, since the level of my rank only merits “Your Worship” – that’s two. Apart from Grushin I told no one that I was intending to visit you – that’s three. It is perfectly clear that the only opinion the detective superintendent can express of my activities is an unflattering one – that’s four. Well, and as for the telegraph, without which, you must admit, modern detective work is quite impossible, it produced a genuinely indelible impression on the whole of your department, and our drowsy Xavier Grushin simply could not have failed to mention it – that’s five. Well, am I right?’ [72]

All of this is tongue-in-cheek and builds the story around the naivety and heroism of the protagonist, Erast Fandorin, in a way that sets the book in a fairytale complete with displaced young gentleman making his fortune as he deserves. At times, the tone acquires the rhythm of a fatherly storyteller, despite the complex subject matter of investigating a series of mysterious suicides:

Not so very long before Alexander Apollodorovich had been engaged in animated discussion of the situation in the Balkans with Fandorin and then abruptly, almost in mid-word, he had given a sudden snore and his head had slumped forward on to his chest, where it was now swaying comfortably in time to the rattling rhythm of the wheels of the carriage: da-dam, da-dam (this way and that, this way and that) da-dam, da-dam (this way and that, this way and that). [206]

Elsewhere, Akunin toys with the reader, as with his fable that Russian roulette was first called American roulette, only to be renamed after Fandorin’s bravery in the face of the dangerous game.

Most of all, the fairytale quality of the book arises from Fandorin himself, who is an archetypal hero: brave, young, quick to love, quick to trust, bold, eager to prove himself, and not swayed by money. These traits amaze those around him, as they expect human behaviour, rather than the super-human. For example, on exiting a gambling den where he has had much success:

Outside in the yard Erast Fandorin was overtaken by Jean carrying a bundle. ‘Here you are, sir, you left this behind.’ ‘What is it?’ Fandorin asked in annoyance, glancing round. ‘Are you joking, sir? Your winnings. His Excellency ordered me to be sure to catch up with you and return them to you.’ [107]

His disinterest in self-profit, despite his meagre salary and dwellings impresses not only his peers but the reader – as we come to see that this is a person above base concerns like earning money to survive. Like the medieval knights that risked life and limb for valour, rather than reward, Fandorin chases the truth rather than success or riches. That he achieves both at the end, as well as marrying his true love is yet another layer of the dreamlike quality to the tale, regardless of how humorously Akunin blows this apart in order to insert more melodrama.

He is not without flaws, however, as Akunin is not loyal to his fairytale theme, nor to the dull chivalry of mediaeval valour. Fandorin is introduced as a lowly clerk who has foolishly spent most of his money to serve his own vanity:

We can also reveal the reason for the young collegiate registrar’s sudden discomfiture. The fact was that only two days previously he had expended a third of his first monthly salary on the very corset described in such vivid and glowing terms and was actually wearing his ‘Lord Byron’ for the second day, enduring exquisite suffering in the name of beauty, and now he suspected (entirely without justification) that the perspicacious Xavier Grushin had divined the origin of his subordinate’s Herculean bearing and wished to make him an object of fun. [14]

He does not lose his vanity, though it is continually reinforced as harmless and likeable, in the way we indulge children for being greedy or selfish, rather than making him foolish or stupid:

But in his imagination he had already rehearsed so many times the triumphant return to his chief, with the spectacular presentation of the precious attaché case and the thrilling account of all the adventures that had befallen him . . . And now was none of this ever to be? Cravenly putting his own interest first, Fandorin said austerely: ‘The attaché case is concealed in a secure hiding place. And I shall deliver it myself. [141]

It is these childlike instincts that save him again and again, quite by accident. Other characters call this fate:

No, brother Fandorin, there was an entire psychology behind it. I took a liking to you, a terribly strong liking. There’s something about you . . . I don’t know, perhaps you’re marked in some way. I have a nose for people like you. It’s as though I can see a halo above a man’s head, a kind of faint radiance. They’re special people, the ones with that halo, fate watches over them, it protects them against all dangers. It never occurs to the man to think what fate is preserving him for. You must never fight a duel with a man like that – he’ll kill you. Don’t sit down to play cards with him – you’ll be cleaned out, no matter what fancy tricks you pull out of your sleeve. [157]

Though his naivety leads him into adventure, and even into trouble, he is never badly harmed by it. His trust in the wrong people does not harm him, when he falls for the careful benevolence of several fairy godmother types – the Sherlock character Brilling and a kindly old British woman who runs a series of orphanages. He is gifted promotions and money but what he values is their respect and that he is treated as one of the adults. The lavish gifts seem suspicious to the reader but it is kept unclear whether these are part of the blessing of the good hero that he deserves or traps that he fails to see, which maintains the dramatic tension beyond the point it should remain. For example, when in the midst of Brilling’s suspicious behaviour, he serves Fandorin a table of sweets, as he has no real food in the house, the scene is entirely improper for the build-up to a grand reveal:

‘I should say so,’ Erast Fandorin reassured his chief, and like a good sorcerer Brilling set a bottle of orangeade on the table before him, together with a large dish covered with éclairs, cream puffs, light, fluffy marzipans and flaky almond cones. [175]

The hints at conjuring the delicious food, the later procurement of a new gun for him that Fandorin handles like a “handsome toy” [182], and above all, his ability to make anything possible produce the effect of a wizard. He seems disappointed in Fandorin’s goodness when things come to a head, as though frustrated with not being foiled by this hero that even the cold villain has come to love. He still tries to teach him:

‘Stop!’ his chief barked out furiously. ‘And stop waving that pistol around, it isn’t loaded. You might at least have taken the trouble to glance into the cylinder! Why must you be so trusting, damn you! You can never trust anyone but yourself!’ [189]

Instead, it is the sideshow villain that left me with the enduring feeling of creepiness, which is what I want to finish on because it left me with such a unique sense of dread whenever he spoke:

Of course I shall get you across the Channel, my sweet angel, that is no great business. […] And quite right, my peachy darling, the word is silver, but silence is golden. [140]

However, a glimpse of the malevolent gleam of metal in the hand of the provincial secretary made Erast Fandorin first halt and then begin backing away. ‘That’s a wise decision, my sweet strawberry,’ Pyzhov said approvingly, [153]

A perfect encapsulation of the special twist that Akunin puts on his fantastic setting, full of strange characters and personal takes of familiar tropes.

Similar books: Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers; Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber; Lev Tolstoy, Fables for Children; Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger; Prosper Mérimée, Chronique du règne de Charles IX.

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The Changeling of Zimbabwe

I have been interested in twins, doubles, foils, changelings, doppelgängers, and all those doubled aspects for a very long time. Part of this fascination arises from an experience I had where I started taking a fairly common kind of medication and experienced a complete change in personality, which prompted my interest in the two sides of myself I now saw in myself. This book is another great entrant in a long list of similar stories that I find fascinating. Like You-Jeong Jeong’s The Good Son, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, or Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented MrRipley, the main character is an intelligent, manipulative outsider seeking entrance into a social sphere they are naturally excluded from. There is something so enthralling to me about watching someone make all the wrong choices for deeply sad, even understandable, reasons – loneliness, frustration, feelings of inadequacy or abandonment. Novuya Rosa Tshuma’s House of Stone brings these feelings to a creepy fever pitch, emphasised by its historical setting in Zimbabwe’s recent and less-recent past.


Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, House of Stone (2018)

I have to start with Zamini, the Changeling of my title. As the narrator of the novel, he is presented to us as a dutiful neighbour to his landlords, with a close relationship that is allegedly that of a surrogate family. Very quickly, doubts are sown about how much this is felt on both sides, growing until reaching sociopathic levels that are often seen in portrayals of mental illness and obsession. (One example can be seen in Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, another in the popular new show, You.) Zamani’s interactions with the family are presented as the centrally important notion of the book, which is an interesting subversion of normal stories about missing people, where the main character is feverishly determined to find the truth. Instead, Zamani selfishly and unfeelingly manipulates the grief of a missing boy’s parents, attempting to supplant the son’s place in this family. Alone and without his own relatives, Zamani finds his landlords by returning to his abandoned childhood home and finding an idealised family living there. Convincing them to rent to him, he inveigles his way into their affections, manipulating both the father and mother, as well as the son before his disappearance. Some of his actions are so disturbing to read, as he plays out a sick fantasy of being their son while lying, drugging, and blackmailing to continue the game. I felt revolted reading the following passage, which speaks to the power of the spell Tshuma has woven:

At the mention of the 5 Brigade and Gukurahundi, my surrogate father begins to convulse. He blinks at me wildly, and tries to push me away, squirming at the feel of my hand on his back. I bend over and grab Johnnie from the floor and shove it to his lips, feeding him straight from the bottle. I grip him by the neck, but I can feel him trying to push my away, his body struggling away from the sofa, away from me. My grip on his neck tightens, and I pull him close, until his head is resting against my chest. I’m pouring Johnnie straight into his mouth. He swallows, sputters, begins to cough.
“It’s your son, Father. It’s me, Zamani.”
He’s comatose, now, I don’t think he can hear me.
“I love you, Father.”
I stare at those closed eyes, imagining their penny hue; stare into those teardrop nostrils, at that moist, peeping thicket. I bring my blueberry lips close to his and kiss them. They are cold, his breath warm. It reeks of Johnnie.
My Father.
I sidle up against him. Take his hand and place it across my tummy, where it rests on my hip, limp. Take my Nokia N76 out of my trouser pocket. Angle it above us. Press my cheek against his. Smile into the camera, and snap our selfie. [91-3]

On top of inducing a recovering, wife-beating alcoholic to return to his vice, he also induces a new addiction to drugs in order to entice the old man to continue telling him “their” family history. This is cleverly retold through Zamani’s narration, with interjections in the prose that colour the stories with obvious, misjudged and misplaced bias. For example:

I shall conclude by saying: my Uncle Zacchaeus, otherwise a very affable fellow, was a lecherous libertine who deserves to fry in the fieriest of furnaces for lusting after my Thandi. [104]

Considering that he has not, nor ever will meet, these individuals that he is not related to, his obsessive passion for his “surrogate-mother” is disturbing, despite the lack of incest. I didn’t think I could find something more taboo than the Oedipal complex, but it turns out that yearning for it is worse to me, somehow. It is with such moments that Tshuma makes an extremely subtle point about the disgust felt by those whose histories were re-written by strangers claiming to be kin: the actions of Robert Mugabe and his Zimbabwean African National Union (ZANU) party in erasing the massacres that they used to capture control of Zimbabwe. These massacres, known as Gukurahundi, were state-led killings to literally destroy support for a rival political party. There are descriptions of this movement in the novel that gave me the most visceral reactions I have ever had, reading a book. For example – and I warn you to skip this if you are squeamish – in one scene, a pregnant woman has her stomach sliced open, which causes her organs and unborn foetus to spill out and be eaten by flies. In the same scene, a building full of children is set alight:

A screaming thing capered out of the burning hut. It was an apparition. A ball of flames. It skidded across the compound. He’d never heard the boy scream. Not like that. Black Jesus leaned forward. Picked the boy up. Flung him back into the burning hut. [149]

It is chilling violence that is hard to capture and Tshuma has managed to capture the horror of the unnatural cruelty that was later suppressed by the nationalist narratives imposed on the country. Another evidence of her skill in subtle, brilliant details, is that the narration, following Abednego, the “surrogate father” and his recollections relabels this precious firstborn son as “the boy”, as though it is too painful to acknowledge that this monstrous vision is his boy.

Zamani, a child born of rape, smuggled out of a refugee camp and raised by an uncle is deeply disturbed to find that his father, Black Jesus, is one of these party-sponsored murderers. He seeks to replace this truth with a new truth – that his landlords are his new family, that they love him and can provide him with a new history. Even in his search for this new past, he finds the unmistakable traces of his father’s violence devastating this new family. His conclusion seems to be that it is impossible to resist one’s parentage and that forging your own story is the only way to survive in cruel circumstances. He says:

The state of things in our country, especially after 2000, when our government started controlling every facet of our lives, including what part of our history to remember and what part to forget, is proof that it’s not what’s true that matters, but what you can make true. [292]

Even learning unsavoury truths about his new family – the father, a rapist and abusive husband; the mother, an adulteress – he acts as only the amoral species, cuckoo, can; he pushes out the egg and settles himself in. He writes fake letters, using them to cement his position further, creating his own past, present and future. In response to losing a father figure he found to Bukhosi, the missing son, he takes vengeance by dooming Bukhosi and stealing his family.

I come back to twins, to doppelgängers, to doubles. There are several layers in this book, as not only is the missing son called Bukhosi, but the firstborn, burnt child, was also named Bukhosi. This attempt to replace a deceased beloved child, as though attempting to rewrite the past is another echo of the theme of repressing horrors of the past, of trying to retell even a person’s fate. Zamani and his actions to oust the missing Bukhosi from his familial home is yet another retelling, echoing the constant oppression of stories that the Zimbabwean people have faced, by their own government, by ex-colonial oppressors, and by peers that try to forget. There was an interesting symbolism in the figure of Bukhosi, both the first and second son of Abednego. The name, we are told, means Princehood. The revolutionaries that Abednego are introduced to lament the loss of the African royalty and their deposition by white invaders; it is easy to draw parallels between this initial act of suppression and the idea that royals (supposedly the best of society) being unable to survive such violence, as they are victimised.

Tshuma demonstrates that the miserable situation is not for lack of vision from the Zimbabwean people. In charming scenes where Abednego is learning about city life, he meets these black rebels, the local intelligentsia that disrupt the white power structure and seek a return to great African customs and rulers. They describe the ancient kings in complex plays, inspired by stories of revolutions. Their vision is of a grand, proud African apart from European influences:

“You want to destroy these sturdy buildings? And then what shall replace them, huts?”
“Don’t be silly. We’ll buy materials from the Chinese and the Soviets, state of the art stuff, and build a royal city fashion after Ndebele architecture, worthy of King Lobengula himself.” [53]

I couldn’t help but draw parallels with this vision and the grand nation of Wakanda, an fictional African country recently brought into the public by the Marvel cinematic universe. This concept of a strong, independent country that decides its fate for itself is a beautiful one, one that Tshuma demonstrates is unattainable due to the remaining corruption that was set in place by colonisers. Even those white people that are not portrayed to be entirely evil are shown to be unable to mentally detach themselves from their loyalty to old Rhodesia. One character bemoans his displacement as Zimbabwe declares independence, failing to see the irony in his complaints when his nation has essentially displaced a country from itself. The racism taught by the whites to the ruling black classes was a lesson in subjugation, exemplified in the following scene, where Black Jesus is shown to discriminate on the Ndebele Zimbabweans as though this is justification enough for massacre:

Black Jesus is walking up and down up and down the stage he starts to talk to us he says with man nothing is possible but with me your Jesus everything is possible. He is speaking in Shone and one of the killers is translating for us to Ndebele. […] I’m here because my disciples are not spreading my gospel. I have told them that we need bodies, we need bodies to sow here in this bared land, but what are they doing, they are just slapping you, just beating you, why are they not shedding your blood? Heh? Are they afraid of you? Heh? Are the women too beautiful? Heh? So I am here to help them do what needs to be done. [157]

The dream is crushed by the realities of war, as shown through the character of Thandi, a city-girl member of the rebels who ends up pregnant with Abednego’s child, taken to his village, and eventually is murdered with her unborn, second child. Tshuma describes this hard lesson between truth and ideal succinctly:

It was here that my Thandi learned just how bourgeois her form of idealism really was! No one in the village was exempt from the demands of food and clothing from the guerrillas, not even the Mambo family and the urgent needs of their pregnant new makoti. [82]

No level of well-meaning philosophy and will is able to fight against violence and corruption, no force can wipe the slate clean. Tshuma’s novel, though ostensibly a time-old tale of a usurper antihero infiltrating an unsuspecting unit, shows that this horrible story is just one of many; a microcosm of the greater state of affairs across Zimbabwe.

Similar books: You-Jeong Jeong, The Good Son; Patricia Highsmith, The Talented MrRipleyDonna Tartt, The Secret History; Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children; Han Suyin, …And the Rain My Drink.

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Systemic Egyptian Sexism

This slim novel was a pick from my local library: the real asset to any respectable bibliophile. Our new one is a big improvement on the last, as there is a limit to how many Agatha Christie books you can read before you need a change and the library did not really provide much else that I wanted to try. Hence my delight upon finding that my new one has not only a fine selection of fiction, but also a whole host of graphic novels and comics! So more on that will be coming soon.

el sadaawi, woman at point zero.jpg

Nawal El Saadawi, Woman at Point Zero (1983)

I love looking through library shelves. This book caught my eye while I was hunting for copies of books on my reading list and somehow it staying in my hands after I pulled it out, so of course I had to borrow it. It was a quick and rather haunting read, though some of its power seemed to go over my head.

The novel is semi biographical, as Nawal El Saadawi is writing the life story told to her in a women’s prison by a women on death row, Firdaus. There is some literary license taken with the tale, as some scenes are written to echo one another, creating the effect of a chorus or an inescapable pattern. This helps to contribute to the overall feeling of helplessness in Firdaus’s attempts to participate within or, conversely, to fight against the patriarchal society she was born into. I could not help but feel that this book, like my earlier reading of Mary Beard’s musings on historical sexism, was a narrowly filtered account of a life. Perhaps it is my privilege of living in a fairly democratic society but I have not grown up with the sense of men being unanimously evil to me, nor of people all wanting something from me in such a crude way. Yes, I have experienced and read much about sexism, but the black and white portrayal of men vs. women is not something that resonates with me. I simply pitied Firdaus for her ingrained hatred of men and her declarations that murdering a man was not a criminal act:

“No woman can be a criminal. To be a criminal one must be a man.” [136]


“I don’t want to be released […] and I want no pardon for my crime. For what you call my crime was no crime. “

I understand that her hatred arises from her lifelong suffering under the patriarchal rulings of her father, of her uncle, of her husband, and of her pimp. I see that her ability to trust was eroded by a series of failures in the people she trusted. But I found the whole story hugely depressing rather than some kind of feminist promise. I do not see murder or violence as a solution to murder and violence. The Norse mythologies and Old English legends taught me that much; blood vengeance and the ethos of revenge only lead to more blood.

It was a depressing read, following Firdaus through her miserable life, through her realisation that life as a prostitute is better than the lives of married women or “respectfully”-employed women, as it provides more money and thus freedoms. In the end, my feeling was mostly that she was relieved to be nearly finished with life, as it had not given her anything to miss.

Similar books: Alice Walker, The Colour Purple; Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis; Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart; Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale; Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber; Han Kang, The Vegetarian.

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