Book reviews

Olive Again

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

She is older and a little more reflective than she was when we knew her previously, but Olive Kitteridge is as curt, candid, intimidating and observant as ever in Elizabeth Strout’s latest novel, Olive, Again.

Like its predecessor and indeed, most of Strout’s novels, Olive, Again is set in a little town in Maine and comprises a series of loosely connected stories told from different perspectives, including those of characters from Strout’s other novels. In addition to Jack Kennison, Christopher and others who featured in Olive Kitteridge, Bob, Jim and Susan of The Burgess Boys and Isabelle from Amy and Isabelle cross Olive’s path again. And, with her skilfully spare but deeply moving prose, Strout quickly convinced me that I too was back in the village and immersed in the largely messy lives of its inhabitants.

The overriding theme of Olive, Again is ageing. Mostly, it’s about ageing awkwardly. (This is Olive, after all.) Older Olive is more compassionate and vulnerable than she was in the first book, but no less forthright and unforgiving. She’s wants to be a good grandmother but is unable to connect with her son and his children. She’s largely content with her second husband but misses the first deeply and is sorry about the way she treated him.

Olive, Again is a story of grief, loneliness, regret but also of hope and kindness. It is Strout at her finest, again. My only complaint is that, at just over 300 pages, the novel is too short*.

*As Jane Austen wrote in a letter, “If a book is well-written I always find it too short.”

(Reviewed in December 2019.)

You Will Be Safe Here

You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr

There is an overload of opinion, outrage and other wordiness about who qualifies to write what stories and whether authors dare or dare not imagine lives that are not patently theirs. The debate peaked in 2016 when American novelist, Lionel Shriver (she of We Need To Talk About Kevin) said she hoped that ‘the concept of “cultural appropriation” is a passing fad’.

I thought about this while reading British writer, Damian Barr’s debut novel You Will Be Safe Here. The book is firmly set in South Africa, telling the stories of two tragedies that occur a century apart. The first, narrated by Boer prisoner Sarah van der Watt, takes place in a British concentration camp near Bloemfontein in 1901. When she and her six-year-old son, Fred are dumped at the camp by British soldiers, they’re told, “You will be safe here.” Of course, they’re not.

The second story is that of sixteen-year-old Willem Brandt who, more than a century later, is delivered to gates of the New Dawn Safari Training Camp, where his mother’s partner has convinced her that her son will learn to be a “real man”. They leave Willem with the words, “You will be safe here.” He’s not.

Barr isn’t South African, but he spent a great deal of time in the country researching his stories and, as I read the book, it occurred to me that it is possible he has done a better job of telling them than a local might have. I have the sense that Barr’s relative neutrality means he was able to dig deeper and more freely than a South African author might be able. Although one could argue his British forefathers brought about the atrocities experienced in the concentration camps during the Boer War, Barr never highjacks his characters’ narratives.

Whatever the stimuli, You Will Be Safe Here is an accomplished and deeply moving novel. It’s not easy to read. It’s beautifully written, but unsettling. However, (unlike I felt after reading My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent), I am pleased to have read it. It reminded me that I sometimes need reminding just how complicated our country is.

If you enjoyed books like The Gold Diggers by Sue Nyathi, Educated by Tara Westover and Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh, you’ll probably enjoy You Will Be Safe Here.

(Reviewed in November 2019.)

Take It Back

Take It Back by Kia Abdullah

Kia Abdullah’s novel, Take It Back is plugged as a “thrilling courtroom drama”, but it is more than that. It tells the story of Zara Kaleel, who is battling her own demons when, having exchanged her career as a high-profile British barrister for a job at a sexual assault referral centre, she takes on the case of sixteen-year-old, facially-deformed Jodie Wolfe. Jodie accuses four classmates of rape. The alleged rapists are the handsome sons of hardworking immigrant families. Like Zara, they are Muslim. Their stories of denial corroborate, but Zara believes Jodie, despite the fact that it is widely known that the girl had a crush on the leader of the four boys.

Already distanced from her own family because of her independence and a recent dramatic incident, Zara is branded an “Uncle Tom” by the Muslim community during the trial. The case also reveals larger divisions in contemporary British society and underscores ugly patriarchal sentiment within communities and groups of people.

As things heat up and Zara struggles to deal with her fragile personal relationships and health, both Jodie and the accused wish they could “take it back”. But what does that mean? Who is lying? It is difficult to tell. There are several twists and I changed my mind multiple times during the novel.

Take It Back is a powerful and thought-provoking book, which examines religion, misogyny, race, privilege, culture and divisions in society. It is pacey and exciting. The story also reveals how, even when you are estranged from your family and culture, and reject many of their beliefs, the ties that bind you to them are strong and it is hard to exist outside the circle.

If you enjoyed novels like Anatomy of a Scandal (Sarah Vaughan) and My Sister’s Keeper (Jodi Picoult), you’ll enjoy Take It Back – although I rate Abdullah’s writing above that of both Vaughan and Picoult.

(Reviewed in November 2019.)

The Dutch House

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

I have two wonderful brothers and appreciate how satisfying it is to grow up and grow old alongside siblings with whom I not only share DNA and a unique history, but also characteristics and ideals. We’ve played, laughed, struggled, competed, cried and celebrated together all our lives – even though I’ve lived on the other side of the country for almost 35 years. My brothers are parts of the puzzle that will one day complete the picture of my life. They were my very first heroes and helped shaped the person I became. Perhaps my gratitude for my siblings is, at least in part, why I so enjoyed my most recent read.

Ann Patchett’s latest novel, The Dutch House is about sibling love. It follows the lives of sister and brother, Maeve and Danny (he’s the narrator) over five decades. After the death of their father, the pair is banished from the lavish Dutch House they grew up in by their stepmother. Super-sharp and self-confident, Maeve takes control of younger Danny’s life and their bond solidifies. In fact, even when things go well for them separately, they are most comfortable when they are together – looking back at the Dutch House, both literally and figuratively. However, when people who left them behind come back into their lives and Maeve and Danny have different responses to them, their relationship is tested.

The Dutch House is a slow-moving, sumptuous read. Patchett has a remarkable way of telling stories about dysfunctional families without overt drama and she doesn’t disappoint in this one. Her characters are fabulously real and flawed, and their interactions complex and moving.

If you enjoy novels by people like Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kitteridge), Sarah Winman (When God was a Rabbit), Fredrik Backman (A Man Called Ove), Sally Rooney (Normal People) and Rachel Joyce (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry), you’ll love The Dutch House. And if you’re keen to listen to it, Tom Hanks apparently does an excellent job narrating it as Danny on Audible.

(Reviewed in November 2019.)

About Administrator

Author and freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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