What attracted me to Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s prize-winning novel was its structure. It’s the story of a young man who dies one April afternoon in Stockholm, his car wrecked in a crash which some speculate may have been suicide, others are sure was an accident. Khemiri tells Samuel’s story through a series of interviews with those who knew him – some fleetingly, others intimately – conducted by an author planning to write a book about him.
Samuel is an administrator at the Migration Board. It’s not the job he dreamt of as an undergraduate hoping to change the world but bills have to be paid. He has a little trouble with his memory, worries about his grandmother’s dementia and sometimes does outlandish things, adding to his Experience Bank. When he meets Vandad they seem to hit it off and soon he’s moved in with his new friend, so different from Samuel with his bulky body and shady dealings. When Samuel falls in love with the idealistic, politically active Laide, Vandad looking jealously on. Samuel opens the doors of his grandmother’s house first to one of Laide’s women in trouble, then another and before long things have got out of hand. As the year rolls on, Vandad becomes increasingly resentful, Laide’s possessiveness becomes more apparent and Samuel finds himself caught in the middle. One spring day, Samuel takes his grandmother for a driving assessment, delivers her back to her nursing home then – late for work – jumps into her car and drives off. This is the bare outline of Samuel’s story, fleshed out through the many interviews our nameless writer records with those that knew Samuel, each with their own version to tell.
Given that the novel is a made up of interwoven fragments it’s remarkably cohesive, not to mention utterly addictive. Each of the many interviewees unwittingly lets slip small details about themselves, colouring their version of events. As the writer tightens his focus on the two who were closest to Samuel, each conveys a very different view both of each other and the events of the past year. Memory, perception, love and its very different interpretations, underpin Khemiri’s novel which plays out against a backdrop of a Sweden far from comfortable with its new multicultural identity, a theme which hums in a subtle undercurrent beneath Samuel’s story. It’s an immensely enjoyable book, cleverly constructed and completely engrossing. Khemiri has written three other novels, none of which seem to be available in translation as far as I can see. I hope that will be put right soon.
I think I would have done better to have saved Virginia Reeves’ powerful debut for another time. I read it while flu-ridden and alone for a couple of days, unable to get out there and find some company. All of which is by way of saying that this is not the cheeriest of novels. It begins with the foreshadowing of a death and deals with the fallout from that death, the devastation of a marriage and the ruination of a life. Lest I’ve put you off entirely, however, I should mention that there is redemption – hard-won though it is – and the writing makes the painful journey to it more than worthwhile.
There are very few things a boy can do for a living in 1920s Alabama. Coal is king but Roscoe has conceived a passion for electricity and found himself an apprenticeship. He’s entranced by this new form of power, seeing the future writ large in lights, eclipsed only by his love for Marie. By the time her father dies leaving Marie the farm to run, their marriage is already strained, the many children they’d planned reduced to just one son. Roscoe refuses to take up the running of the farm, leaving it to Wilson and his family who worked for Marie’s father for many years. Then Roscoe conceives a plan: he will bring electricity to the farm. All it would take is a little adjustment to plug into the Alabama electrical grid, bringing power to Marie’s land and modernising the failing farm. For two years the farm prospers but then a young man is killed while inspecting Roscoe’s illegal handiwork. Roscoe is sentenced for larceny and manslaughter as is Wilson for his part in helping him. The difference is that Roscoe is white and will serve his time at Kilby jail while Wilson is black, subject to ‘leasing’ by the mining corporation – slavery by any other name. Reeves unfolds her tale through Roscoe over the nine years of his incarceration.
Roscoe spends his time in jail longing for his wife who refuses to answer his letters. He’s a well-behaved prisoner, soon achieving trustee status but wracked with misery at what he’s done, not least to Wilson. He endures brutality and finds ways to make his life a little easier, never giving up hope that Marie will forgive him no matter how forlorn the prospect becomes. Alternating between first and third person narratives Reeves tells Roscoe’s story in language which is immediate and direct. Roscoe’s urge to escape and his constant persuasion of himself against it are powerfully portrayed: ‘I could run right now, take to the cotton like Jennings, crawl my way through its branches until I get to the woods. I do this again and again. I run. I escape. I return to my wife and son’. Prison life is bleak and purposeless: ‘I fear we don’t grow, either, here in these walls. Instead, we go backward.’ It’s all a little relentless, a relief when Roscoe returns home to find it changed yet unchanged, the forgiveness of Wilson and his family – surely the most wronged parties of the whole sorry story – contrasting starkly with Marie’s granite judgement. In the end redemption is won, and very welcome it is too. it’s quite an achievement but perhaps best read when cheerful.
Back to Moscow came all wrapped up in orange ribbon along with a couple of other titles, one of which I had my eye on already thanks to Twitter. You won’t be surprised to hear that it’s set in Moscow, back at the beginning of the century when the city was stuffed full of expats with their eye on the main chance. Inevitably there’s a mention of A. D. Miller’s Snowdrops in the press release but this isn’t a thriller – it’s the story of a young man, studying for a PhD in Russian literature more because of happenstance than any burning desire, and the things he gets up to. A kind of Rake’s Progress, if you like. It’s also an atmospheric portrait of a city in the midst of transforming itself.
The novel opens in 1999. Martin has left Amsterdam, thrown out by his Russian girlfriend, and has found himself a scholarship to fund his doctorate on Chekov. He’s a little disconsolate. It’s been a lonely two weeks at the beginning of term but when he meets Colin and Diego in the student canteen the party begins. There’s always a party in Moscow if you’re an expat, so it seems, always a beautiful woman to take home for the night looking for opportunities. Martin and his ‘brothers’ are having the time of their lives, constantly on the razzle. Very little in the way of studying gets done, particularly when Martin picks up a lucrative part-time job with a Russian friend, posing as a Western businessman at his friend’s many meetings striking deals for this and that. Martin entertains an endless stream of ‘dyevs’ each one more gorgeous than the last, finding a way of working them into his ‘research’ and dallying with the idea of love with Lena but when he meets Tatyana it seems it may be time for him to grow up.
Martin is looking back on his time in Moscow and we know from the start that things won’t end well; hardly surprising for a novel steeped in Russian literature where happy endings are at a premium. Each section of the book begins with a short, snappy exposition of a book from the canon illustrating the national temperament – the ‘Mysterious Russian Soul’ as so many Russians Martin meets call it. Time and time again he’s told that life’s not all about the pursuit of happiness which he and his friends have immersed themselves in. Erades vividly evokes a city awash with people on the make while others look on in dismay, charting the changes from the invasion of expats – welcomed everywhere with open arms – to the rise of the oligarchs, Putin and the war in Chechnya. This is not a city for independent women – the ‘dyevs’ are often treated with contempt, interchangeable beauties simply there for sex and decoration while the only woman who is prepared to face Martin with the unvarnished truth is dumpy and a little plain. Martin mentions his plans to write a fictionalised story of his time in Moscow several times and I couldn’t help but notice that the well-travelled Erades spent some time in Russia. Not sure what I think about that but I am surprised at how much I enjoyed this debut. What could easily have been a cheap and lurid hedonistic tale turns out to be very much more than that.