I’d not heard of Elleke Boehmer before To the Volcano turned up, despite the five novels she has under her belt. She’s also the author of an acclaimed biography of Nelson Mandela not to mention editor of the bestselling 2004 edition of Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys. I knew about the latter from Waterstone’s Books Quarterly days but had failed to make the connection. Now an Oxford academic, Boehmer was born in South Africa which explains why so many of her stories emanate from the southern hemisphere.
The opening piece sets the tone for much of this collection with a tale of homesickness in which a young African student’s infectious laugh gradually fades away in an unwelcoming ancient British university town. Lise’s dream of visiting Paris, her backpack stuffed with French classics to guide her, is dulled by rain and unwanted attention which sends her thoughts heading for home in ‘South, North’ while ‘Evelina’, one of my favourites, sees a young Argentinian travel guide, due to join her fiancé in New York, lingering in the airport until the last minute, reluctant to board the plane. Closely linked to the yearning for home, ‘Supermarket Love’ is a tale of cultural confusion as a young Afghan Muslim shelf-stacker writes a letter in her head to an Australian agony aunt about her crush on a colleague, knowing she can never send it. ‘Synthetic Orange’ also calls to mind refugees when the gift of a bracelet made from the brightly coloured vests worn by migrants brings back memories of two shocking events for a woman on holiday in Spain.
Many of Boehmer’s stories are about people at a decisive point in their lives, a time to turn backwards or forwards, but several explore ageing a particularly poignant example of which is ‘Paper Planes’ in which an old woman sits in her nursing home bedroom playing with her grandson, or rather watching him play. ‘The Mood I’m In’ takes a rather different view of growing old as a widow, dry-eyed at her previous husbands’ funerals, finds herself in tears at the fourth.
These are insightful, intelligent stories full of characters pursuing their dreams but often meeting with disappointment, unable to make a decisive move, pulled back by a longing for home or an inability to escape their past and often left lonely as a result. An enjoyable collection, written with a quietly perceptive insight.
I remember being very impressed by Tash Aw’s debut, The Harmony Silk Factory, which was surrounded by a great deal of hype when it was published back in 2005 but for some reason I’d not got around to reading anything else by him until We,The Survivors turned up. Set in rural Malaysia, it tells the story of a man born into poverty, a decent man whose attempts to better himself end in tragedy.
When Ah Hock was four, his father left for Singapore, promising to send money home but never returned. After the land she’d scrimped and scraped to buy was ruined by floods, his mother moved in with another man, a wastrel outcast from the village. Ah Hock becomes friends with Keong when he’s twelve, despite the four-year gap in their ages. Keong fancies himself a gangster, taking off to Kuala Lumpur where Ah Hock briefly joins him, returning home when he sees there’s no future for a boy like him in the city. For ten years, Ah Hock works on Mr Lai’s fish farm, making himself indispensable, marrying and hoping to start a family, his eyes fixed on a smart new house but the endlessly promised pay rise never arrives. Keong returns to the village, full of his new job finding migrant labour for employers looking for cheap workers and none too fussy about the veracity of their papers. When Ah Hock’s staff begin to sicken with cholera he turns to Keong in desperation, knowing that he’ll lose his job unless he finds more workers quickly. On the night Keong has arranged to meet his Bangaldeshi contact, Ah Hock is horrified to find that he’s armed with a knife but it’s Ah Hock who springs to Keong’s defence and finds himself convicted of murder.
Aw’s novel takes the form of Ah Hock’s testimony given to a young woman who first tells him she’s an academic, then confesses she’s writing a book about him. He’s a thoughtful, intelligent man, compassionate and empathetic towards the migrant workers he manages on the fish farm. The last man, one might think, to launch a frenzied attack on the Bangladeshi gang master for whose murder he spends three years in prison. Aw reveals Ah Hock’s character through memories, anecdotes and reflections while exploring themes of racism, corruption and the exploitation of migrant workers rife throughout Malaysian society. Allusions to changes in fickle Western demands and their effects on migrant workers’ jobs provoke thought and attitudes to refugees are sometimes uncomfortably close to those found in some quarters of the West. Aw’s writing is contemplative and perceptive, his characters well drawn and convincing. It’s a quietly powerful piece of fiction, both compelling and sobering.
Last month I posted a review of Addison Jones’ Wait for Me, Jack, a novel about a long marriage which survived a multitude of difficulties, the premise of which I found fascinating. As you can tell from the title, Katie Kitamura’s A Separation is the other side of that coin, a marriage that doesn’t endure. Not a subject uncommon in fiction in either case but what makes Kitamura’s novel particularly interesting is that it’s about a woman whose estranged husband is missing in the Peloponnese. Their separation has been kept secret from all but her new partner.
Unable to contact her son, Isabella calls his wife, a little surprised to find that she is not with Christopher in Greece where he’s supposedly researching his unfinished book. Our unnamed narrator finds herself agreeing to search for her husband while withholding the knowledge of their separation from his mother. Once there, no efforts are made to track Christopher down. Instead, the narrator contemplates her marriage, Christopher’s many infidelities and her relationship with her new partner while observing the staff at the off-season hotel where her husband has been staying, speculating about the likelihood of a relationship between Christopher and the receptionist who seems oddly hostile towards her. After three days she decides to explore a little, engaging a driver who clearly has hopes for a future with the receptionist. When what has happened to Christopher becomes clear his parents are summoned and the narrator must decide what her role is to be. It seems that the bonds she had planned to break irrevocably are more insoluble than she had imagined.
Kitamura’s novel is written entirely from the narrator’s point of view. All events and observations are filtered through the lens of her imaginative speculation. She’s firmly in the unreliable school, interpreting events and relationships from the barest of facts: some of her deductions prove uncannily accurate so that we begin to trust her judgement while some are undermined by subsequent observations. Her relationship with Christopher’s parents is sharply drawn as she picks her way delicately through territory already thorny even before the (still undisclosed) separation. The complexities of marriage are carefully dissected – the narrator’s just five years in length, Mark and Isabella’s decades long – and the many, varied and unexpected ways in which couples become bound together explored. Kitamura’s style is oddly old-fashioned at times: formal and detached yet extraordinarily effective. Our narrator finds herself both an observer, looking back on her relationship with her self-absorbed husband, and a participant in the dramatic turn events have taken. It’s an absorbing novel, if discomfiting, with nothing so simple as a clean resolution. I suspect I’ll be turning it over in my head for some time.
This novel is unlikely to appeal to everyone although we should all read it. It’s about assisted suicide, one of the great moral dilemmas of the twenty-first century Western world where medicine has advanced in leaps and bounds but not the ethical framework for dealing with its unintended consequences. Steven Amsterdam’s sharp, funny novel explores this conundrum through Evan, a nurse whose mother has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Evan is about to administer his first lethal dose to a builder riddled with cancer. Teddy’s family are with him: his wife not quite holding things together and his daughters not quite believing what’s about to happen. As a nurse on Mercy Hospital’s assisted suicide programme, a pilot project made possible by the enactment of a new law, Evan is closely monitored, part of a strict protocol carefully designed to protect all parties. His first assignment is a little bumpy but all is smoothed out in the debrief. After work, as he does every day, Evan visits Viv in the nursing home where a new treatment appears to have transformed her from the waspish, distant woman he knows and loves into the garishly made up, life and soul of the party. On one of Evan’s ‘assists’ he oversteps the mark, offering a little too much in the way of help, putting both himself and his boss in an untenable position. Soon he’s working off-grid, stepping over the line into unregulated territory, convinced that his vocation is to help those who want to be helped. Meanwhile, Viv moves out of her nursing facility, shrugging off his offers of help and urging him to find himself a life. Despite his relationship with Lon and Simon who have invited him into their lives and into their bed, the only support he’ll allow is from the roommate he met during Viv’s brief commune days. When Viv’s stabilisation dips into a disastrous decline, Evan is faced with a choice.
The Easy Way Out is an extraordinarily powerful novel, made all the more so by the knowledge of Amsterdam’s own work as a palliative care nurse. No axes are ground here: Amsterdam explores the dilemmas that surround this vexed question with compassion and humanity, leavening it all with a darkly sardonic humour – gallows if you like. Both Evan and Viv are sharply drawn. Evan’s lonely mission and its emotional fallout is painfully believable while Viv is wonderfully acerbic – Evan imagines her fury at being called ‘feisty’, that over-used cliché applied to women who speak up for themselves at a time when that’s something she can no longer do. It’s a smart, though-provoking novel that pulls no punches from its hard-hitting opening chapter to its surprising end. I was reminded of Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal as I read it – we all need to have conversations about our old age and decline, stop ducking the issue and pretending it won’t happen to us. And if our country decides, as some already have, that we must find a safe and secure way to legitimise assisted suicide we need to think carefully about the burden we place on those charged to assist. This is a brave novel – wise, funny and gripping. We should do Amsterdam the courtesy of giving it careful consideration.