The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that there haven't been any book reviews since the end of February, the main reason being I have found it hard the last few months to get into a good reading rythym. I started several books, but found myself uninspired and unable to concentrate for long. In short I came up against a book block. So I decided to get my story fix elsewhere, namely K-Dramas on Netflix (my new, not-so-guilty pleasure). However, there are a few books I'd like to share with you and you'll see they're all quite different, there's no obvious theme connecting them, except perhaps the idea of otherness.
Afropean: Notes from Black Europe by Johny Pitts
When the bookshops reopened earlier this year I couldn’t wait to get in there with my book list and book token I’d been saving since Christmas. I came away with great swag that day, though not one of the books were titles I’d had on my list. I came across this sitting on one of the display tables in the European history section whilst browsing and was first struck by the bold monochrome cover and wonderfully evocative photograph, then, by way of a cursory glance at the introduction knew I’d found a book that was going to open my eyes and challenge me to think bigger.
This is a truly fascinating read and I can only thank Johny Pitts for providing me with such a comprehensive course in European and African history and sociology. Before, I knew some things about colonial Europe, its tight grip (and dependence) on overseas territories, and the slave trade. Now I realise I knew very little at all and have a great deal to learn. This is not your usual history book, for what Pitts writes about is every day, contemporary life, however it is painstakingly clear that the situations and circumstances of those lives are still directly impacted by the uneasy and complicated relationship Europe has had with the wider world, particularly its African colonies (some relinquished, grudgingly, only very recently) for centuries.
Pitts states that the purpose of the self-initiated trip through the wintery cities of Europe was to try and discover the black European experience, to see if “living in and with more than one idea: Africa and Europe,…without being mixed-this, half-that or black-other” was a possibility. Being self-funded, the trip was deliberately planned out of season; he travelled mostly by train and stayed almost exclusively in hostels, meeting on his way a variety of characters with extremely diverse backgrounds that he, had he travelled on a bigger budget, would not have had the chance to rub shoulders with. Despite the variety however, of both people and backgrounds, the overriding and overwhelming theme of their collective stories is one of prejudice and discrimination that continues to undermine their very existence in countries unable or unwilling to acknowledge the past and look to creating a more inclusive future.
As one might expect, this discrimination is aimed most directly at the availability of ‘suitable’ jobs, decent housing, and personal safety. Many of the people Pitts meets along the way are living ‘invisible lives’ on the outskirts of societies that feel the need to clean up their cities by pushing anyone who is deemed not to belong, further and further out of the centre into a kind of no man’s land where communities have to fend for themselves, some surviving better than others. At the start, I was hopeful each time Pitts moved on to the next city, believing, along with Pitts, that somewhere out there was the Afropean utopia he felt should exist, in some form or other. After about the first two or three cities however, it became clear that it probably wasn’t going to materialise - and most definitely not in Moscow to where he ventures about three quarters of the way through the book and where I was most concerned for his safety.
This is a sobering read; often uncomfortable, and yes, depressing at times. This is no Eric Newby skipping his jaunty way through Europe, this is a hard-hitting, eye-opening account of what life for many people on the continent - immigrants, refugees, and of course, Europeans who just happen not to have been born looking like ‘a European’ - entails. Within its covers is a rich cast of characters representing so many corners of the globe, all attempting to carve out a better life for themselves and their families in Europe’s, mostly unwelcoming, metropolises. There is a wealth of world history here, carefully researched and engagingly recounted, and it should be read by everyone; to teach some and remind others of the mistakes that were made, and that we in the present have the ability, individually and collectively, to make those changes that will lead to better equality and a more inclusive global society.
(I thought I'd include the following, written by Johny Pitts and taken directly from the back of the book, in case anyone wished to discover more about his journey and the online Afropean community.)
Resources: about black European organisations, artists, scholars, grants, musicians, community centres, book recommendations, NGOs, and businesses, please visit our ongoing project: afropean.com/map
For a wider selection of photographs from the journey, visit afropean.com/photoessay
To hear an audio exploration of Afropean culture, visit afropean.com/podcast
To share your own Afropean story with an online community, please contact email@example.com
A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier
I have always found Chevalier’s books very soothing; there is something restoratively calm and unhurried about them. They are well-written, beautifully detailed and descriptive, and thoughtful, no matter the time period, characters or subject matter. This was no exception. Set in Winchester in 1932 it follows the story of Violet Speedwell, a 38 year old spinster recently liberated from her overbearing Victorian mother’s clutches, who is desperately trying to create a life for herself, by herself, at a time when unmarried, surplus, women were
simultaneously ridiculed and feared by a society still feeling the effects of the Great War.
Having lost so much on the battlefields of France, Violet has been grieving for the past 16 years, trapped in a cold wintery darkness, living a restricted, bland life as a typist for an insurance company in Southampton, held back by the limited outlook of the time that decreed single women were expected to stay at home and care for their parents, care for their siblings, care for everyone else but themselves. Her move to Winchester, we learn, is her second act of rebellion - the first being that she secretly applied for a transfer having seen the advertisement on the office notice board.
Her initial joy at new found independence quickly turns to frustration and despondency as the stark reality of her situation becomes painfully clear. She finds the cathedral, as have so many before her, a place of sanctuary and, after observing (illicitly, Act of Rebellion No. 3) a special service for the Cathedral’s group of broderers (embroiderers) and seeing the beautifully embroidered cushions and kneelers the women have created for the Cathedral, decides to join in the hope of making new friends and learning to how to successfully wield a needle. It’s a seemingly small decision, but one which ends up changing the course of her life irrecoverably, leading her out of perpetual winter and into the nourishing warmth of spring.
Inland by Téa Obreht
I found this novel a bit of a slow burner which is ironic considering just how unbelievably hot it’s setting it. The two stories (for there are indeed two different plots) take place in and around the Arizona Territory in the late 1890s - a drought-ridden land ruled by lawlessness, and populated sparsely with those who are either running from their fate or searching for it. A land where the line between life and death is so fine that a person need only accidentally stumble and find themselves among ‘the other living’.
One story follows the misadventures of a young man named Lurie, a former outlaw who finds himself accompanied on his travels across the great American West by the ghosts of these ‘other living’. He can see them, hear them and worryingly of all, feel their want. It may be an unquenchable thirst or a penchant for pickpocketing; sometimes it’s something much darker. He soon learns to give the dying/the dead a wide berth so as not to become weighted down by all the want. But then one night he witnesses an event so miraculous to him that his own want is pushed directly to the fore and he sets off on his biggest adventure yet.
In stark contrast to Lurie’s tale that encompasses years spent constantly on the move, the story of Nora, a hard, no-nonsense frontierswoman, is concentrated into no more than 24 confined, throat-parched hours. Nora has been waiting for her husband to return with fresh drinking water for too long now. He is three days late in returning and their two eldest sons, angry at the inaction of the local law enforcement, have ridden off she knows not where to take matters into their own hands. She is left only with her youngest son, her aged mother-in-law and the girl who helps in the house who can speak to the other living. Without her menfolk around, Nora and their family business are suddenly under threat and the vultures are gathering.
Though Lurie’s story arguably takes the reader to farther flung places, displaying the American West in all it’s terrifying glory, it was through Nora’s story that I felt the blazing heat of the unrelenting sun, and the vulnerability of existence faced by the frontiers men and women (and doubly so for the latter) in that harsh environment where they had chosen to pitch their tents. For me, these two stories could quite happily have been two separate books/novellas as I wasn’t entirely sold on their coming together at the end, but both were beautifully written and evocative, and in the hands of a talented female writer, I feel we have been given a fresh new perspective on the Western genre.
The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea
I feel that I perhaps should have read this back in January or February when the grey days were short and bitter and the threat of snow more real, for this tale takes place on Iceland, in the dead of winter. But no matter, it’s still a cracking yarn.
It’s set in the 17th century at a time when Christianity was methodically snuffing out all forms of pagan beliefs and folklore, and heartily encouraging the devastating witch trials that were sweeping through Europe. Rósa is a young woman with a dead father, a sick mother and a deteriorating reputation, living in a small, gossipy village where there are no secrets and no prospects. One day Rósa is offered the chance to change her circumstances and protect her mother through the only course available to women at the time (and almost every other time before and since) - marriage.
Jón is a good catch for any woman, he is goði of his village, owns a large croft and farm and is respected by Icelanders and Danish traders alike, only he is not the man she’d hoped to marry and he lives several days journey away meaning once installed in his house, Rosa will rarely get to see her mother again. Moreover, Jon is not the man he appears to be. The foreboding Rosa has been feeling since her acceptance of the marriage proposal accompanies her as she makes her arduous way towards her new home across the harsh and unforgiving Icelandic landscape with Jon’s apprentice Pétur, himself a dark and unsettling character, and threatens to engulf her on her arrival at Stykkishólmur.
With Jón and Pétur working long hours in the fields or on their fishing boat and prohibited from conversing with the villagers and almost completely confined to the creaking and lonely croft, Rósa is cut off without friends and without guidance, vulnerable and alone. But is she really alone? Who or what whispers to her through the locked door to the loft above the baðstofa? Whose eyes does she feel watching her as she lies struggling to sleep in her cold bed? Could the rumours about Jón’s first wife, Anna, be true… was she really a witch?
The Sunday Times quote on the front of the book describes this story as “An Icelandic Jane Eyre” which I feel is a fairly apt comparison. It has that same gothic, brooding feel to it; that same sense of desperately limited choices and utter lack of power women faced; and that same overbearing presence of an unseen, unknown, character. The latter of also had a touch of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca about it. But, for all these things, The Glass Woman is its own book with its own narrative and themes. With its tense atmosphere, dramatic setting and page-turner qualities, I feel it would make a good tv drama for winter nights.
If you've read any of these, I'd love to know what you thought! Or if you have any similar books to recommend, please let me know in the comments below.