THE ZANZIBAR CHEST by Aidan Hartley
If you just took a moment to think about the devastation wrought on Africa since the white man landed on its vast coastlines, you would weep. Britain, Italy, Germany, France, Portugal, Russia, America, Spain, Turkey: they have all left their indelible and catastrophic mark on the continent. Once these countries have wrought their havoc, bled the place dry of its resources, its people and its essence they leave. And really in our little Western worlds we think very little and very infrequently of that vast and diverse land mass. Our interest is really only piqued when we are full on exposed to the ravages of famine and drought, the madness and tyranny of its leaders, or the blood and gore and horror of its wars. And who brings us this news, who ensures we have full frontals of these events, who piques our consciences? The foreign press, foreign correspondents, journalists. Virtually all the journalists we have anything to do with in our daily lives are those attached to our daily newspapers and nightly TV news entertainment - reporting on the mindless trivia of local and national politics, chasing 'celebs' for nothing meaningful, commentating on the latest sporting event, reporting on the day's court cases - you get the picture. But out there, a long way from our comfortable and tiny existences are the real journalists - those that report on stuff that does matter.
Aidan Hartley is one of those real journalists. He is in the incredibly unique position of actually being a child of Africa himself. Descended from a long line of adventurers, explorers, soldiers and men of action who variously contributed to the ever expanding British empire, he also has that urge to discover, explore, do something different with his life and see the world. From seeing news footage from Vietnam on TV one evening in his teens, he knew that being a journalist was what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it in Africa.
Due to his childhood in various parts of Africa and being his father's son, Aidan developed a very deep love for the land, its people and all the tragedies that have happened to it as a result of foreign intervention. As a young man he finally made it back to Africa and began his reporting career in 1988 as a stringer for the Financial Times in Tanzania. From that time on till the mid-1990s Aidan was on the spot to report, for our Western eyes and ears, on virtually every bit of conflict and catastrophe to hit Africa. And he pulls absolutely no punches about what he sees and how most of the mess that Africa is currently in is due to interference from the West and the total powerlessness and uselessness of the UN in 'mananging' the various conflicts. He sees too much death, brutality, hunger, poverty and waste. Including the deaths of many of his fellow correspondents and friends. He saves his worst for his reporting of the Rwanda massacres in 1997. Be prepared, it is not pretty reading.
There is absolute no doubt that his experiences have scarred him deeply. On his father's death, Aidan discovers a wealth of other stories in his father's Zanzibar chest and he intersperses his modern day observations with the tragic story of his father's close friend who also loved Africa intensely.
This is a remarkable book for the author's passion in telling his story, the catharsis such writing must have been for him, his ability to convey the horrors he saw, the sheer futility and waste of money, life, and energy that was going on around him, and the infinite variety of good and bad humanity he was exposed to. He does come out the other side, but it is a long and difficult road to that point. He has come full circle however; living happily with his wife and young children in Kenya. This is a very big book and will stay with you for a long time after you finish reading it.
THE BEACH by Alex Garland
The best thing about belonging to a book club is that you are exposed to books you would never normally pick up, let alone read. This book had been sitting on the table for a few months, and you know how you sort of get a gut feeling to take a second look, well I did, and then the person who owns the book told me I should read it without really saying why, so I took it home, looked at for a while then after a week or two, started to read it. Wow, what a read. I never saw the film 'The Beach' with Leonardo di Caprio as the lead character mainly because the reviews were pretty mediocre and the subject didn't really appeal - sort of Lord of the Flies (which I never liked) crossed with Blue Lagoon (too ridiculous).
The book, however, is more of a psychological dissection of what can happen when idealistic young backpackers, fueled with the local grass of choice, discover Utopia. You just know before you reach the bottom of page 1 that it aint going to end well! I was hardly surprised when I read that the author's mother was a psychoanalyst; this book is a fantastic study of the young back packer mind - the thrill of adventure, relying on one's own resources, the excitement generated by the discovery of new places, people and things, and the inevitable disillusion that sets in when this life is really not that much different from the life left behind.
Richard is English,in his early 20s, on what I guess is a gap year. With a life long interest and morbid fascination with the Vietnam War he decides to head to South East Asia, the story opening with his arrival in Bangkok in a typically seedy backpacker-ish part of town. It doesn't take him long to meet people, including one who gives him a map of the beach and where it is. Within a few short days he finds himself on The Beach - an unspoilt strip of shore line surrounded by cliffs and commercially grown and heavily guarded marijuana fields; the beach itself occupied by 30 other similarly footloose backpackers who live communally in harmony, surviving from the land and the sea, with the occasional foray back to the mainland. For quite some time the beach life is very peaceful and cooperation reigns. But the modern twentieth century world cannot be held at bay forever. It transpires that the arrival of Richard and his friends is the catalyst for everything to fall apart. Which it does in a most spectacular fashion.
It is fairly apparent that all the people on the beach have become slightly mad with the isolation, the communal nature of their hunter/gatherer existence, and the endless supply of drugs to smoke and probably poisonous own-brewed liquor to drink. Richard's obsession with the Vietnam war, video games, and his relationships with his equally strange fellow residents contribute to his own downward mental and emotional spiral. It is absolutely fascinating watching the inevitable train crash happening.
The author wrote the book based on his own back packing adventures in Asia, mainly the Philippines. He is very scathing of what Western style tourism has done in a short period of time to the beautiful coastal areas of this region, choosing to target his criticism at the beach resorts of Thailand. It is a little ironic that when the movie was made, the beach chosen as the site for the film was extensively excavated to produce the required look, and was apparently restored to its natural state by the 2004 Tsunami.
A truly worthwhile book to read, especially if one has ever done back packing of any kind, or spent time living in a 'tropical paradise'.
MAY READING - Have The Men Had Enough; Secret Daughter; To Heaven By Water; The Return of Captain John Emmett
THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN JOHN EMMETT by Elizabeth Speller
Shell shock - psychological disturbance caused by prolonged exposure to active warfare, especially being under bombardment, origin - First World War (Oxford Dictionary).
This novel is about the effects of shell shock on soldiers, and how very misunderstood these effects were by the military, the medical profession and families. This was a war unlike any form of war before and it changed forever the way wars were conducted. But as with all war, it is not the generals and commanders who bear the brunt of it, but the soldiers themselves who desperately try to deal with it, and their families who have absolutely no idea what their son or husband has been through.
In a what goes on tour stays on tour sort of way, this novel looks at the long term effects of the secrets of war business. In this case execution for desertion and/or cowardice by a firing squad comprised of fellow soldiers. Over 300 British and Commonwealth private soldiers were executed during WWI and of these only 3 were British officers. There were over 3000 soldiers including officers who were found guilty of desertion/cowardice but the sentences were generally commuted. It was extremely rare for an officer to be punished by fellow officers.
Now, a century later, we know about the horrors of WWI and trench warfare and the truly miserable frightening experience it would have been for anyone, regardless of whether they were a private or an officer. And this book pulls no punches in its descriptions of these horrors. Is it any wonder ordinary men placed in these extra- ordinary circumstances had complete breakdowns, and found themselves paralysed with fright.
This novel takes the real life executions of two soldiers and combines them into the story of an officer killed by firing squad. In 1920, Lawrence Bartram, ex-Western Front himself, recently widowed, aspiring writer of a history of English cathedrals, is living a life in limbo. He is approached by Mary, the sister of an old school friend, Captain John Emmett, who has recently died, apparently by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Mary thinks a lot of things about the death don't add up, including the bequests John left in his will, and she approaches Lawrence to help her unravel her brother's complicated life. It soon becomes apparent that a string of apparently unconnected deaths are in fact all connected to John, a group of war poets, and the events that resulted in the execution of the officer.
This book is a number of things - a murder mystery, an analysis of the psychological effects of battle, a love story, but mainly a tribute and attempt to understand what the average man had to endure during and after the war. And all that is very good. But because there is so much going on, and so many tails to keep track of, the story, for me was slow moving, at time ponderous and it felt like it was taking an absolute age to get through. The author has a lot to say about the war, too much perhaps, which results in some complicated and possibly unnecessary plot lines and characters as she tries to tell us as much as she can.
Her characters, however, are very believable, although the mysterious Captain John Emmett does perhaps come across as a bit too good to be real! We really only know about him after his death, and maybe, like we do with our memories of people who die, we tend to only focus on the best parts of that person and associated memories. The phrase 'looking through rose-tinted glasses' springs to mind!
Despite this the book is very evocative of what immediate post-war civilian life could have been like - listlessness and lack of direction, many many people dealing with terrible grief, trying to create something that resembles pre-war normality.
TO HEAVEN BY WATER by Justin Cartwright
Symbolism, symbolism and more symbolism: this book is overflowing with it! Even before starting the story, the title sets the ball rolling. The title refers to the ferryman, Charan, from ancient Greek mythology who ferries the dead across the River Styx to the afterlife. This 'life after death' idea dominates the novel and pre-occupies the thoughts and actions of the main character, David Cross. David is middle aged, recently widowed, recently retired, and is really wondering what he is here for, what does he do now, and where is love. Dylan Thomas and his epic 'The Waste Land', Dr Faustus who sold his soul to the devil, amongst others dominate David's thoughts. I actually wonder if he is slightly depressed, but he comes across as bemused or puzzled rather than depressed. Prior to retirement he was a bit of celebrity, having been a long-standing and highly regarded news anchor/journalist, and in his younger days a fearless and exacting foreign correspondent.
He had a life, and now that he is out of the public limelight, he really just wants to know what he wants to do with the rest of it. So he appears to be going through what his adult children consider is a mid-life crisis. He joins the gym - spends a lot of time pondering on the rowing machine, changes his dress style, starts to wear bracelets, becomes a bit too 'thin', doesn't seem to be missing his recently passed wife, only feeling a little bit guilty about it and not really understanding why. And naturally, he wonders about love.
The absolute highlight of his life was a summer break in Rome in 1967, when as an aspiring actor, he finds himself in the inner circle of Richard Burton who is making a movie in Rome in the title role of Dr Faustus. The new Mrs Burton is also there, captivating every man in the place. Naturally David falls in love with a girl he meets on the set, and this relationship sets the tone for the rest of his life.
His two adult children, Lucy and Ed, are also trying to sort out their own lives. Ed is a lawyer, married to an ex-ballet dancer who is desperately trying to conceive a child, and Lucy is dealing with a stalker boyfriend while cementing her career as an expert in ancient coinage.
An odd bunch of people really you might think! But probably going through all the various crises and issues that we all may face from time to time. What I really enjoyed about this novel was David himself. He could be totally unlikeable really considering the kind of high profile life he has had, quite selfish and self absorbed, and there are elements of that to his character. But he does have considerable empathy for his friends, his children, and in probably some of the best writing of the novel, his relationship with his brother. This is not a novel of action, but a very insightful study of why we do what we do, and what we think we may be here for.
SECRET DAUGHTER by Shilpi Somaya Gowda
Sitting in our comfortable living rooms, watching the nightly news, reading the daily papers or trawling through the internet, we often find ourselves exposed to 'life in the third world' - civil wars, famine, poverty unlike anything we would ever know or experience, disease and epidemics, women treated as economic chattels whose sole purpose is to produce a son, illiteracy and superstition, the list goes on. But with the push of a button, the turn of the page or slide of the mouse, we can escape that world and remain in our safe, warm, food-filled and healthy world.
This novel forces us to think further about these differences by focusing on two couples - Kavita and Jasu Merchant from a poor village in rural India, and Somer and Krishnan, medical doctors from San Francisco. What unites them is a child, a baby girl, second unwanted female daughter to Kavita and Jasu, at least unwanted by Jasu. In a society obsessed with producing sons, Kavita sees the only way to save her brand new baby's life is to walk miles from the village to an orphanage in Mumbai and, heart breakingly leave her baby there. Kavita returns to the village, in enormous emotional pain and continues with her life, never forgetting her child.
Meantime on the other side of the world, in San Francisco, Somer is desperate to have a baby but continually has miscarriages. So, after some soul-searching, she and Kris go to his home city, Mumbai, with the express purpose of adopting a baby girl. Asha, named by her mother and meaning hope, becomes Usha meaning dawn. By a stroke of fate a child's destiny is changed forever.
The novel moves easily chapter by chapter between the four main characters and Asha as she grows up, between the two countries and between the two very very diverse lives the two families lead. As you would expect the contrasts are huge. Essentially they rest on poverty vs privilege. Anyone who has spent any time living in a third world country will understand exactly the huge gap between the two. The lives of Kavita and Jasu are notable for constant financial hardship and struggle, and also a very deep love and commitment to each other. In America on the other hand where all material needs are more than adequately met, it seems more energy is spent on emotional and mental needs, so it is then the relationships between people that suffer. Somer struggles with being a mother trying to maintain her professional identity, plus also struggles with the Indian-ness of her daughter and her husband. Kris, on the other hand finally has someone he can be himself with and passes on much of the richness of his Indian upbringing to Asha. Asha, herself, grows into a young adult torn between the two cultures and her parents, culminating in her travelling alone to India so as to find herself and where she came from.
It is a complicated thing to do, to adopt, and even more complicated to adopt outside your own culture. This story will have enormous relevance to anyone who is adopted or an adoptee, or even growing up in a culture alien to one's own family. A great range of issues and themes are covered in the story and the whole thing could easily dive into a many armed beast with the all the potential conflicts and clashes that are brewing away. I think the author manages this by having fairly one dimensional characters, stereotyped to a certain extent, but it does allow the issues to come forth without being overtaken by complicated personalities. The characters are a little predictable as a result, and I did feel like giving Somer a jolly good shake from time to time, but it doesn't really detract from the overall story.
Having lived in India, my interest in reading the book was more in the cultural differences, the huge socio-economic extremes, and how the two somehow find some middle ground. I was also interested in reading this as I know families who have adopted children from other countries, including those who have adopted girls from China and Korea. Now I don't know if these children are products of the one child/son at all costs way of doing things, but you can't help wonder. How different the lives of these girls would have been if they had stayed in China and Korea.
HAVE THE MEN HAD ENOUGH by Margaret Forster
It is probably something that most of us think about from time to time, and then very quickly put it away far back in the 'think about it next year' slot in our brains - what will I be like when I am old? How long will I live? Will I be a burden on my family? Will I lose my marbles? This is likely to be an increasing social problem too: with the first of the baby boomers now turning 65, there is going to be a population explosion of senior citizens in the next few decades.
Margaret Forster writes about families, in particular the women in families - mothers, daughters, grandmothers - their conflicts, the pressures, the bonds and the intense love that binds them all. She continues with the theme in this story. The family is headed by Grandma, Mrs McKay. Grandma is old, she still lives independently, her spinster nurse daughter, Bridget lives in the same house but in a separate area. Around the corner is her son Charlie McKay, his wife Jenny, and teenage children Adrian and Hannah. Nearby is her other son Stuart, his younger second wife and two young children.
Grandma is one tough lady, her life has not been easy. As a result she is fiercely independent, outspoken and difficult to please. However she is becoming increasingly senile and unable to look after herself, thus creating enormous difficulties for her family. They all love her dearly and want to do the best by her. But, as we all know, in any situation where the heart can rule the head and emotions are continually running high, trying to marry Grandma's independence with her mental and physical needs is not easy.
The story is narrated in alternate chapters by daughter-in-law Jenny and granddaughter Hannah as they deal with the gradual deterioration of Grandma. As is the norm in family crises such as this it is the women who rise to the fore, who instinctively know what to do, and generally run the show. Unfortunately the men in the family just either do not know what to do, do know but do not want to do it, or are simply in denial about it all. The author has not portrayed the men in this family in a very flattering light, yet so skilful is her writing and characterisation that the reader does feel considerable empathy towards Charlie, Stuart and Adrian. Just what would we do in a similar situation, how would we feel with our parents in their last years. And how would we like to be treated by our own children as we gradually lose touch with reality.
This is an extremely compassionate and loving account of a family in crisis. It doesn't shy away from the difficult decisions, the moral and emotional quandaries that people find themselves in with dealing with those they love. I imagine that it would be a difficult read for someone who had recently seen their elderly parent go through such a decline. Nevertheless it is a worth while read because such writing does make us think about our families, those we love and how best to deal with difficult decisions.