The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed

The Orchard of Lost Souls In 2013, Nadifa Mohamed was named one of Granta’s “Best Young British Novelists”. This is her second novel, set in Somalia in the 1980s as rebel forces clash with the military dictatorship and the country heads towards civil war. The events of this turbulent period are seen through the eyes of three female characters:

* Deqo, a nine-year-old orphan who grew up in a refugee camp and has now found herself homeless and alone in the city of Hargeisa.
* Kawsar, a widow mourning the death of her daughter, who becomes confined to her bed after a violent beating at the police station.
* Filsan, a soldier sent to Hargeisa from the capital city of Mogadishu and feeling homesick for the life she has left behind.

During a military parade at a stadium in Hargeisa, the paths of these three women briefly cross before they are separated again and go on to have very different experiences of this troubled time in Somalia’s history.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book set in Somalia before and I knew nothing about the causes of the civil war or the situation in Hargeisa, so reading The Orchard of Lost Souls meant I had an opportunity to learn something new. Telling the story from three different perspectives allows the author to explore different aspects of the war; through Deqo and Kawsar we see what it was like for people living in and around Hargeisa, trying to survive from one day to the next, while Filsan’s story gives us some insights into the military regime. As you can probably guess, many of the things the women experience are traumatic and brutal, though I won’t go into any details here.

As well as being educational, this is also a compelling story (or stories, as there are really three of them in this one novel) and I was interested in all three characters, although I thought Filsan was much more difficult to like than either Deqo or Kawsar. However, I did have some problems with the structure of the novel, especially at the beginning. For the first fifty pages of the book, the viewpoint switches rapidly between each of the three women which I found very overwhelming and confusing. I was relieved to discover that this didn’t continue all the way through the book! The opening section was followed by three longer sections concentrating on one character at a time, so I was able to get to know each of them separately before they eventually meet again near the end of the novel.

I can see why Nadifa Mohamed has won awards for her writing because she clearly has a lot of talent and her descriptions of Somalia are beautiful. I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages, where Filsan remembers the streets of Mogadishu:

In the centre of the city where the alleys narrow at points to the width of a man’s shoulder blades, you can walk as if in a dream, never certain of what might appear after the next bend: a bare-chested man with a silver swordfish slung over his thin black back, a shoal of children reciting Quran from their wooden slates, a girl milking a white, lyre-horned cow. The place has enchantment, mystery, it moves backward and forward in time with every turn of the feet; it is fitting that it lies beside an ocean over which its soul can breathe, rather than being hemmed in by mountains like a jinn in a bottle.

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

I’ve never read anything by Ernest Hemingway before, partly because he’s one of those classic authors I’ve always felt intimidated by, but when I was offered a review copy of this beautiful new hardback edition of A Farewell to Arms (with a cover image replicating the original 1929 cover and lots of additional material) it seemed a perfect opportunity to give one of his books a try.

A Farewell to Arms is narrated by Frederic Henry, an American ambulance driver who is serving as a Lieutenant (or ‘Tenente’) in the Italian army during the Italian Campaign of World War I. Early in the story he meets a British nurse, Catherine Barkley. When Henry is injured by a mortar shell he has to spend some time in hospital and during this period his relationship with Catherine develops. What will happen when it’s time for him to return to the front? Part love story, part war story, this novel is based on Ernest Hemingway’s own experiences in the Italian ambulance corps where, like Henry, he was injured and fell in love with one of the nurses at the hospital. The fact that the story is semi-autobiographical gives it a realistic, unsentimental feel.

Hemingway’s writing style is very simple and direct, he gets straight to the point and avoids flowery language and long, detailed descriptions (though he still manages to choose just the right words to evoke the settings he is writing about). You might think that such plain, simple prose would be easy to read but for me, the opposite was true; it was distracting and it took me a long time to get used to it. Some passages are written in an almost stream-of-consciousness style, which is something I often struggle with, and there are also lots of very long sentences consisting of a string of short clauses all joined together by the word ‘and’. His writing is very distinctive and you’ll either like it or you won’t.

Hemingway rarely tells us anything that is not completely essential to the plot and so I finished the book feeling that I never really got to know either Henry or Catherine – neither of them are described in any great detail, we are only given very basic information about their backgrounds, and we aren’t even told the narrator’s name until several chapters into the book. Instead it is left to us to read between the lines, work things out for ourselves and use our imagination, and I think it’s intentional that we are told so little about the lives of Catherine and Henry before the war. However, the fact that the characters were not fully fleshed out meant that Catherine in particular didn’t feel like a real three-dimensional person; I liked her, but seen through Henry’s eyes she was very sweet and submissive, and it would have been nice to have had more insight into her personality.

Frederic Henry’s narrative style is detached and factual, almost as if things are happening at a distance and as if he sometimes feels very disconnected from the events going on around him. This works though, because it helps to portray the futility and harsh reality of war, and it reflects the way Henry feels; he is a person who has seen so many terrible things they no longer have such an emotional effect on him. The problem with the combination of terse writing style and detached narrative voice is that it made it hard for me to form any kind of emotional attachment to the characters, but the story was still quite poignant and moving in places, especially the final chapter.

Apparently Hemingway wrote the ending of the book thirty-nine times before he was satisfied with it. This new edition of the book includes an appendix with the text of all thirty-nine different endings. I read some of them, though not all (I think this type of supplementary material might be of more interest to someone who is studying Hemingway or considers themselves a fan of his work rather than to a first-time reader like myself) and although I did like some of the alternate endings, in my opinion the one he finally settled on was probably the right choice. I had tears in my eyes at the end and I’ve always thought that if an author can make me cry he or she must have done something right!

I’m not sure if I’ll want to read more Hemingway novels in the future but I’m glad I’ve had the chance to try this one and have now had some experience of an author I had heard so much about.

Thanks to William Heinemann for the review copy of A Farewell to Arms

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

It’s 1940. Frankie Bard is an American radio reporter working in London for CBS, broadcasting news on the Blitz into American homes. Frankie is right in the heart of the action, spending her nights sheltering from the bombs and her days reporting on homes that have been destroyed, families torn apart and children left orphaned.

Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, we see the effects the war is having on the small town of Franklin, Massachusetts. In Franklin, we meet the postmistress (or actually, postmaster, as she prefers to be called): Iris James, a middle-aged single woman. And we also meet Emma Fitch, the doctor’s wife. When Emma’s husband travels to London to offer his medical skills to the war effort, it sets a chain of events in motion which will affect the lives of all three women.

I seem to have been reading a lot of books about World War II recently – books written during the war, set during the war and about the aftermath of the war. The Postmistress is a book I’ve had my eye on for a while and I was looking forward to reading it. Unfortunately, it turned out not to be one of the better WWII books I’ve read. In fact, it’s probably the most disappointing book I’ve read so far this year and I very nearly gave up on it after a few chapters. Although the writing was very elegant, it felt impersonal somehow and scenes that I’m sure should have made me cry left me unmoved.

The biggest problem I had was that I didn’t feel a real connection to any of the characters. The only one who came alive for me at all was Frankie Bard. I thought the book lacked focus and might have worked better if it had concentrated more on one central character. As it was, I’m not sure The Postmistress was the best title for this book. It implies that the postmistress (i.e. Iris) would be the main focal point of the book, which she wasn’t – this was really Frankie’s story in my opinion – and although Iris does play an important part in the plot, her character’s potential was never fully explored. As for the third main female character, Emma, she seemed very two-dimensional and I never felt that I got to know her at all.

It’s not all bad, though: there were some things that I did like about this book. I enjoyed the section where Frankie was sent to report on the refugee trains departing from Berlin and to attempt to interview some of the Jewish families who were leaving the city. I’m sure she wouldn’t really have found it quite so easy to travel by ferry from England to France in the middle of the war and then to catch a train to Berlin, though! Despite this and a few other inaccuracies (in the author’s note, for example, Sarah Blake admits that the recording equipment Frankie was carrying hadn’t been invented until 1944), I thought this was easily the most compelling part of the novel. This was around 150 pages into the book and was the first time I’d found myself becoming absorbed in the story, which made me glad I hadn’t abandoned it. Sadly though it didn’t continue to hold my attention and I quickly started to lose interest again when the focus returned to Iris and Emma.

I did find it interesting to read about the various ways in which the war was affecting the lives of people in Massachusetts, thousands of miles away from the fighting. We see people worrying about loved ones in Europe, people feeling frightened and expecting a German U-boat to land at any minute, people tuning into the radio every day to hear the latest news and wishing there was some way they could help. Most of the WWII books I’ve read have been from a European perspective so this was something different and I really liked that aspect of the book.

The Postmistress didn’t work for me personally, but I’ve seen a lot of reviews that are much more positive than mine, so clearly other readers have been able to connect with the characters and the story better than I have. I do however think it would make a good book group choice, as it raises some issues which would be perfect for a discussion, such as the importance of truth and whether the truth should always be told – and what happens to the people we hear about on the news after the reporter stops speaking and the radio is turned off.

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

“Mother! The Führer has murdered our son. Mother! The Führer will murder your sons too. He will not stop till he has brought sorrow to every home in the world.”

Otto Quangel writes these words on a postcard one Sunday afternoon in 1940, drops it in a crowded building the next day and waits for someone to find it. And in this way, a quiet married couple from Berlin begin their campaign of resistance to World War II.

I’ve been very lucky so far with my reading choices in 2011. Alone in Berlin (published in the US as Every Man Dies Alone) is yet another one that I thoroughly enjoyed. This book has been on my wish list since I noticed it had been translated for the first time and published as a Penguin Classic, and I’m so glad it lived up to my expectations. Not only is it a wonderful story but it’s also important historically as an anti-Nazi novel written by a German and published in 1947, just after the end of World War II.

The book is based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel, whom Hans Fallada renamed Otto and Anna Quangel. Fallada was given the Gestapo’s files on the Hampels and was able to draw on this information as part of his research for Alone in Berlin. Before I read this book I knew nothing about the Hampels and their postcard campaign, so I found the plot completely suspenseful, exciting and full of surprises – it was truly unputdownable, the kind of book where I knew as soon as I started reading that I was going to love it.

From the first page we are drawn straight into the action with postwoman Eva Kluge delivering a telegram to Otto and Anna Quangel, informing them that their son has been killed. Meanwhile in the apartment below, the Nazi Persicke family are celebrating the news of the capitulation of France, whilst Frau Rosenthal, the elderly Jewish woman who lives on the fourth floor, is forced to go into hiding after her husband is taken away by the Gestapo.

Devastated by his son’s death and appalled by the Nazi regime, Otto buys some blank postcards and devises a simple scheme which he hopes will raise awareness of Hitler’s atrocities and encourage other German citizens to join the resistance. On the surface, Otto is our hero, the man with the courage to stand up to Hitler, the man who refuses to join the Party although doing so is ruling him out of promotion at work. And yet Otto is not a conventional fictional hero. He comes across as cold and distant and not particularly likeable – but I could understand the reasons for him distancing himself. He was not frightened for himself, but afraid that his actions would endanger anyone associated with him, particularly his beloved Anna who insists on helping him with the postcards despite the risks involved.

The middle section of this book becomes a sort of cat-and-mouse game with Inspector Escherich of the Gestapo attempting to catch the mystery postcard writer. Escherich is a very shrewd and intelligent detective who is able to make clever deductions based on the tiniest clues – almost a brutal, sinister version of Sherlock Holmes – and I was kept in suspense wondering if Otto would give himself away.

But there are so many other things going on in this book. We also meet Enno Kluge, Eva’s husband, whose main ambition is to stay out of the army on health grounds and fill his days with gambling and drinking. Then there’s Trudel Baumann, who was once engaged to the Quangels’ son, and is opposing the war in her own way; Baldur Persicke the Hitler Youth Leader who puts Hitler and the Party before even his own father; and Kuno-Dieter, a teenage boy who flees Berlin for the countryside.

I wasn’t expecting this book to be so easy to read. The writing is clear and direct, getting straight to the point and allowing us to concentrate on the rapidly moving plot. I was concerned that my unfamiliarity with German war-time politics might be a problem, but I needn’t have worried. I had no problem understanding any part of the book. The focus is not on the politics but on the people and their lives. I went through a whole range of emotions while reading this book: fear (for Otto and Anna, for Trudel, for Frau Rosenthal, even at times for Enno); anger (at the Gestapo and the whole system of ‘justice’); and sadness, of course.

Alone in Berlin is a moving and inspirational story about two people standing up for what they know is right. I would highly recommend it if you enjoy reading World War II fiction and would like to view things from a different perspective and also if you enjoy novels that are both gripping and heartbreaking. Don’t let the 600+ pages put you off – I became so absorbed in the story I didn’t even notice the length!

The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller

When Captain John Emmett returns from France at the end of World War I, his mother and sister are worried about his mental condition. John is suffering from shell-shock, which is causing him to become aggressive and violent. After spending some time in a nursing home, John escapes and is later found dead in a nearby wood. It is assumed that he committed suicide.

John’s sister, Mary, contacts one of her brother’s old school friends, Laurence Bartram, in the hope that he can help her discover what really happened to her brother. Why would a man who had survived the horrors of the war shoot himself two years later? As Laurence starts to investigate, he begins to wonder whether someone else was behind John’s death.

The Return of Captain John Emmett is a fascinating story. It works well as a historical fiction novel, with its portrayal of the people of 1920s Britain coming to terms with the aftermath of World War I. But it’s also a gripping psychological mystery in which Laurence Bartram reluctantly takes on the role of detective to investigate the circumstances surrounding his friend’s death. There are clues, suspects, red herrings and all the other elements that make up a compelling and well-structured detective story.

The book is also an interesting and poignant study into the effects, both long-term and short-term, that the war had on individuals and their families. How people came back from the war an entirely different person to when they went away. How men dealt with the memories of the atrocities they witnessed. How their wives felt about the part of their husbands’ lives that they had been unable to share. How people were left with physical disabilities and had to learn to adjust.

We are given insights into the thoughts and emotions of a First World War soldier and we learn what it was like to be part of a firing squad. The War Poets are also touched upon, and so are the loyalties and friendships formed in British public schools.

Due to the subject and setting, the book had a sombre and depressing feel, yet I found myself really enjoying it. As the mystery surrounding John Emmett’s death became more and more complex and involved, I was completely drawn into Laurence Bartram’s investigations. The plot relies quite heavily on coincidences in places, but not so much that it spoiled the story for me at all. I loved it and will definitely be looking out for more novels from Elizabeth Speller!

I received a review copy of this book from NetGalley courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Review: The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

The Night Watch follows the lives of four very different people during and after World War II. There’s Kay, who drove an ambulance during the war, but now, in 1947, there’s something missing from her life and she wanders the streets of London on her own, a lost and lonely figure. There’s Helen, who is feeling insecure in her relationship with the sophisticated Julia. Then there’s Viv, having problems of her own with her boyfriend Reggie, an ex-soldier. And finally, we meet Viv’s brother Duncan, who was in prison during the war and is still haunted by events in his past.

The story quickly becomes so complex and involved that it would be difficult to tell you any more about the plot without spoiling it. What I can tell you about though, is the structure of the book, which was very unusual. The story begins by introducing us to the characters in 1947, after the war has ended, then moves back in time to 1944, and then in the final section goes back further still to 1941. I both liked this structure and disliked it.

I liked it because of the way it led to some surprising revelations about the characters and their histories. I disliked it because so many storylines were left unresolved. I wanted to know what happened; I wanted to know whether Kay, Helen, Viv and Duncan would find happiness. I think this is probably the first Sarah Waters book I’ve read where I really loved and cared about the characters – they all felt so real and believable. But while the book answered some of the questions about the characters’ pasts, I was left with a lot of unanswered questions about their futures.

In comparison to Sarah Waters’ other books, this one feels much more subdued and quiet, with an overall mood of sadness. Apart from relating some of the obvious horrors of war which affected society as a whole, there are some heartbreaking moments in the personal stories of all four main characters (the story that affected me the most was probably Viv’s). I also found it interesting to read about the various jobs that were available to women during the war. With so many of the men away fighting, this was a time when it was deemed acceptable for women to do jobs that would previously have been done by the men. Kay, as I mentioned, was an ambulance driver, and there were other women also doing the same work. Helen and Viv were employed in more conventional office jobs, but were still contributing to the war effort with Helen providing support for people who had lost their homes or were in financial difficulties, and Viv working as a typist for the Ministry of Food.

As I’ve come to expect from Sarah Waters’ books, The Night Watch is both well written and well researched. She manages to incorporate an incredible amount of detail into the book, but the detail never overwhelms the story. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys reading about life during World War II and the effects of the war on the lives of ordinary people. But if you loved Fingersmith and are looking for more of the same, I should warn you that this book is about as different from Fingersmith as you could imagine!

Recommended.

Review: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“I do hereby solemnly proclaim that the territory and region known as and called Eastern Nigeria, together with her continental shelf and territorial waters, shall henceforth be an independent sovereign state of the name and title of The Republic of Biafra.”
~Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu

Half of a Yellow Sun follows the lives of three central characters before and during the Nigerian-Biafran War of 1967-1970. The first character we meet is Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old boy from a small village, who comes to the town of Nsukka to take up a position as houseboy to Odenigbo. Odenigbo is a university professor who regularly plays host to a lively gathering of friends who are all very opinionated on the political issues facing Nigeria. His girlfriend, Olanna, is the daughter of a rich businessman and is an educated woman with a degree in sociology. Early in the book she travels to Nsukka to live with Odenigbo and Ugwu. The third main protagonist is Richard Churchill, an Englishman drawn to Nigeria by his interest in Igbo-Ukwu art. Richard falls in love with Kainene, Olanna’s intelligent and sarcastic twin sister.

This is the first book I’ve read by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and also the first time I’ve read anything on this subject. However, my unfamiliarity with the history, politics and geography of Nigeria wasn’t a problem, because the book explained things very well, on a personal, as well as a political level. The important thing to understand is that the nation of Biafra was formed when one of Nigeria’s ethnic groups, the Igbo, attempted to secede from Nigeria and establish their own country – but the newly-created Republic of Biafra received little support from the rest of the world and lasted less than three years. The Biafran flag (shown to the right) consisted of red, black and green horizontal stripes, with half of a yellow sun in the middle.

The book has an unusual structure: as well as being told from the alternating viewpoints of Ugwu, Olanna and Richard, the story also moves backwards and forwards in time. This structure didn’t really work for me, as I felt it disrupted the flow of the story. It also took me a while to start to feel anything for the characters, which was a problem for me at first. What I did like, though, was that the central protagonists were all from very different backgrounds which gave us the opportunity to see things from three entirely different perspectives.

Then suddenly, the Republic of Biafra was established, the war began, and from this point I became swept into the story and really began to love and care about the characters. We were given some vivid and harrowing descriptions of the suffering of the Biafran people – how children were dying of starvation, how people were murdered and abused, how homes were being destroyed. There’s one memorable scene where Olanna is sitting next to a woman on a train who is holding a calabash containing the severed head of her daughter. There was a lot of violence in the book, but I never felt that it was gratuitous.

The characters all develop over the course of the story, which is always a good thing. Ugwu was probably my favourite character. At the beginning of the book he arrives in Odenigbo’s home as an uneducated teenage boy, who feels bewildered by the new life he has suddenly been thrust into, but as he learns he grows in confidence and becomes a valued member of the family. However, there’s an incident near the end of the book that disappointed me and made me lose respect for him, although the fact that this occurs shows us how war and fear makes people behave in ways that they wouldn’t normally.

The other character I found particularly interesting was Richard. As an Englishman and initally an ‘outsider’, he comes to consider himself a Biafran and wants to write about his experiences, but eventually begins to question whether it’s right for him to tell this story or if it should be left for somebody else to tell. There were also several scenes which took place towards the end of the war when he was accompanying two American journalists who had come to report on the war. The ignorance and insensitivity of the journalists gives an idea of how the situation may have been viewed by some of those outside Nigeria.

There are a few surprises at the end of the book and it certainly didn’t conclude the way I was expecting it to. I can’t really say that I ‘enjoyed’ this book but I’m glad I read it because I now have a much better understanding of this period of Nigerian/Biafran history – and also because the story itself was so moving and one that really affected me.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the book in which Odenigbo explains why his mother, a woman from a small bush village, feels threatened by an educated woman like Olanna.

“The real tragedy of our postcolonial world is not that the majority of people had no say in whether or not they wanted this new world; rather, it is that the majority have not been given the tools to negotiate this new world.”

Highly recommended