There’s hope for us all in Esperanza Street, a newly-published debut novel full of hope for the future by Niyati Keni which she sets in a port town in the Philippines at the beginning of the Eighties. It tells the story of Joseph from the age of eight to fifteen. His siblings have already left home when his mother dies. Feeling unable to properly care for his son and hold down his work as a stevedore, his father places him as a houseboy with ‘Aunt’ Mary Morelos, another lady down on her luck who runs a boarding house.
‘Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World is a masterpiece, a haunting and moving allegory about the violence and the culture built to support and celebrate that violence. Of the writers of my generation, the one I most admire is Yuri Herrera,’ writes Daniel Alarcón on the back cover of this fascinating novella that sheds a very human but unflattering light on the illegal cross-border traffic of human beings between Mexico and the United States and, very rarely, in the other direction.
Enterprising publisher & Other Stories continues its excellent work in bringing novels from all parts of the world to our attention in first-class translations. Latest offerings include Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones, translated from the original Italian by Clarissa Botsford; and Nowhere People by Paulo Scott, translated from the original Portuguese by Daniel Hahn. Both books are highly commended.
There are several shelves worth of novels telling the grim story of South Africa’s apartheid years – Alan Paton, Doris Lessing, André Brink, J M Coetzee and many more – but not so many that explore the Mandela years. One book of the new wave of post-apartheid novels is the excellent fictional memoir by Ivan Vladislavić, Double Negative [London: & Other Stories, 2013]. The narrator is Neville Lister whom we meet in his teenage dropout years. When he quits university, his frustrated father arranges for him to spend a day with fictional famous photographer Saul Auerbach; a day which affects the rest of his life. To avoid conscription and being sent to fight on the country’s borders Lister, like many others, ‘escapes’ to London but, as the cliché puts it, you can take Lister out of South Africa but you cannot take South Africa out of Lister. Ten years later he returns to pick up some of the threads of his life that have become unravelled. Finally, we encounter him in later middle age, now a professional photographer and hence an acute observer of what has changed, what has morphed and what has not altered. This is a case of still waters that run deeply. On the surface the pace and the language is gentle but, thanks to the skill of writing, the reader becomes more and more aware of the turbulence beneath the surface. I will rate this 7.5 out of 10 (and declare an interest; I am a subscriber-supporter of the publisher And Other Stories.)
With so many books on my shelves that are either still to read or which I very much want to read again – right now it’s Middlemarch –, what do I need with not one or two but three book clubs that will be sending me still more books over the next twelve months? And yet, for their different reasons, they have all appealed to me. At least, all of them will be sending me physical books and I can continue my one-man campaign to boycott e-book readers. Admittedly, that’s not quite consistent with my own novel, Rembrandt Sings, being available across all e-platforms but, as the closing line of Some Like it Hot says, “Nobody’s perfect.”