Book Review: My Mind To Me A Kingdom Is

my mind to me

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Everywhere, echoes”

On 3 May 2015, Paul Stanbridge’s older brother, Mark, died by suicide. Nine days earlier he had entered an area of woodland near Stoke by Clare on the Suffolk/Essex border. His body was discovered a day after the pivotal event, hanging from a tree, by two local men walking a dog.

Such are the bald facts of a close family death. They are teased out over the course of this narrative – a memoir in which we are told memory cannot be trusted. Timelines remain fluid. What happened is known by the author through hearsay as he cannot yet bring himself to read his copy of the coroner’s report. His grief manifests in wandering considerations of seemingly random interests that then serve as metaphors for aspects of the brothers’ relationship.

“Many of the things I remember are impossibilities, and yet for me they happened.”

For over a year the author’s life stalled as he struggled to process his loss. He would sit at home in the dark, sometimes aware of the presence of someone outside on a rocking chair, smoking. His insomnia was interspersed with underwater dreams.

The book opens with his thoughts on Doggerland, the toponymy of the North Sea and the naming of its regions. There are: maps, history, those who wrote of the place. It becomes an obsession during a time when his mind lacked more regular focus, when he did not wish to think of his new reality. In navigating this labyrinth of grief the past is rewritten each time elements are remembered.

Included herein are stories of strange happenings: a child born with a twin sibling growing inside him, unknown until it eventually kills him; trees that consume articles left beside them – fences and bicycles becoming strange appendages. There are musings on how relics of Christ were valued and dispersed in abundance, far more than could be possible, due to the belief in the power of a lingering presence after death. It is clear that the author’s brother still exerts influence.

Historic interests and researches are interspersed with memories of Mark, coming together to read like a fever dream. There are occasional lucid moments but much of the discourse is oblique. Mark was obviously a disturbed individual, behaving, in his brother’s words, badly in a wide variety of ways.

“If I had to describe him in a single phrase, it would be: wilfully uncooperative.”

In amongst the memories of a troubled relationship, one that led to estrangement and death threats – although there was reconciliation in the months before Mark’s death – there are happier recollections. The author writes of a bike ride they undertook in the Pennines, a moment of joy glimpsed on a person whose chosen way of living was challenging to be a part of, hard to comprehend.

More than a year after Mark’s death, friends of the author asked him to house sit their cottage in Wiltshire while they travelled abroad for several weeks. It was here that a healing of sorts began, to the backdrop of an unexpected interest in horses – creatures never before esteemed. Books on the subject were read avidly, bike rides undertaken to investigate. Insomnia and the underwater dreams faded away.

The interests documented in this memoir – water, horses, trees, memorials – link to Mark in myriad ways. Although distractions at the time to aid coping, there are obvious links in how they are written of here.

The lingering pain of grief comes across clearly. What is set out here does not always make for easy reading.

I struggled to retain engagement through the many digressions. When Mark was referenced directly my attention was awakened but wandering through the reflective researching of the author at this difficult time did not always pique my interest. The obvious poignancy garners sympathy but the narrative style, with its many historic anecdotes, required investment. Perhaps prior knowledge of subjects would have helped.

There were nuggets that kept me reading – mostly when I shared the author’s fascination with a topic, when that prior knowledge existed. I could appreciate how each element was pulled together to make a coherent story in which the shadow of Mark pervaded. I admire what has been written but, in the main, did not enjoy reading it.

Any Cop?: I wrote of the author’s previous publication, Forbidden Line (a retelling of Don Quixote): ‘Perhaps I would have enjoyed some of the seemingly abstruse sections more had I been familiar with the original.’ Once again, I feel a ‘better read’ reader may gain more from this book. It is clever and of interest, but was not for me.

Jackie Law

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Book Review: brother. do. you. love. me.

brother do you love me

“Does Reuben have a learning disability or do we have an understanding difficulty? We pathologise the condition but are too busy to listen.”

brother. do. you. love. me., by Manni Coe and Reuben Coe, is a memoir of the brothers’ struggles to move forward with their lives following the stringent Covid Lockdowns. While incredibly moving it is also eye-opening, offering a window into the challenges faced by a loving family who are dealing with the needs of a child born with Down’s Syndrome. Aged 38, Reuben had only recently moved into a care facility for adults with learning difficulties when he was required to confine himself to his room, all outside visitors banned. The care staff were overstretched and bound by rules. In his loneliness, Reuben grew depressed and stopped talking. For a time he stopped eating. The title of the book is taken from a text he sent his brother when at his lowest ebb. It prompted Manni to leave his home in Spain and move with his brother into the rural farm cottage owned by his partner. Over the months that followed Manni worked relentlessly to find ways to bring Reuben back to something like his former self.

Reuben was the fourth son born to a couple whose Christian faith was a vital part of their lives – something that caused a rift when Manni came out as gay. Reuben grew up valued by all his family for what he was but often pitied by wider society. There was a desire to mould him into what was regarded as normal rather than build on his individuality. As the memoir unfolds it becomes clear that the Covid restrictions did not trigger his first crisis.

“this is what life must be like for my brother: he meets people, casts his nets of friendship, full of love and aspirations, only for those nets to be hauled back empty. People simply cannot or do not want to slow down enough to get to know him”

When Manni received the text, he had been living in Spain for the previous 19 years. He had a business as a tour guide and, since 2015, had lived on an olive farm in Andalusia with his partner, Jack. For a time Reuben had lived with them, a cherished member of their family. He moved back to England following a violent storm that badly affected him in the summer of 2018. It is this incident that opens the book. Both Manni and Jack were away from home that night and Manni ponders if this trigger forced Reuben to face his loneliness and mortality.

Manni writes with his heart on his sleeve as he recounts the brothers’ backstories alongside the struggle of helping bring Reuben back from the brink. There is an honesty and an intimacy, an admission that Manni has needs as well as Reuben. Alongside the recollections are colourful pictures, drawn by Reuben and bringing to life his needs and fears. The book truly is a collaboration and more powerful for the inclusion of what is effectively Reuben’s diary of their time together.

The months spent in the cottage are exhausting for Manni even if precious. As Reuben slowly improves his brother comes to realise that this cannot be a long term solution. He misses Jack. The ongoing stresses of the situation affect his ability to stay constantly calm and collected, as Reuben requires if he is not to regress. Manni recognises that Reuben’s continuing improvement depends on him feeling capable and useful, even if his first reaction is to allow others to do everything for him. Reuben finds any change scary. Manni is aware that if he is to return to Spain and his work there, he must place his brother back into a care system that previously failed him. Jack disagrees.

The guilt and concern felt are well portrayed. The brothers find an impressive support network, but professionals move on with their lives and careers and cannot be relied upon forever. From his drawings it is clear that Reuben understands much of what is happening, the nuance if not the detail. He still fears losing his family again and being unable to communicate his complex needs to carers.

A beautifully written account of a bond between brothers and the positive impact it has on both of them. Manni never glosses over the difficulties but the love felt is clear, along with its cost.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Toller.

Book Review: Homesick

homesick

Homesick, by Jennifer Croft, tells the story of Amy and her relationship with her little sister, Zoe. It is a bildungsroman of sorts, starting when Amy is five years old. The sisters are close, with Amy believing it is she who looks after Zoe rather than their parents. She is content with this arrangement until she reaches her teenage years when the secrets she keeps from her sibling increase.

The family lives in Oklahoma, close to the girls’ grandparents who they see regularly. The mother wishes her children to understand the realities of the world they live in, telling them stories of disasters, natural and man-made. The girls share a bedroom and draw comfort from each other when these anecdotes cause nightmares. Although not wealthy, theirs is a happy enough childhood until Zoe gets diagnosed with a health issue that could kill her.

Removed from school, Amy thrives academically. She enrols early at university but finds herself unravelling there. She believes her successes have come at a cost to those she cares most for. To save them may require a sacrifice.

The book is structured in short, succinct chapters. Despite its brevity, much of depth is conveyed. The author is a master of language and uses it to effect. The story remains warm and engaging despite elements of tragedy.

Originally written in Spanish in 2014, Homesick was published in Argentina under the apt title, Snakes and Ladders. It was described as a memoir, the key events in Amy’s life mirroring the author’s. This new, English edition is marketed as a novel and dedicated to Croft’s sister.

Whether Amy is based on the author or not, the tale told is riveting. Written with elan and compassion it captures the close world of childhood, how it shapes the emerging adult in myriad ways. The minimalist portrayal adds power to the complexities of character conveyed. A recommended read that will linger beyond the final page.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Charco Press.

Book Review: Never Mind, Comrade

never mind comrade

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“I don’t understand how all this works, how some things are possible in this country, where it’s only about praise and punishment, miracles and catastrophes, but nothing in between.”

Claudia Bierschenk was born near East Berlin and grew up in Thuringia, a village in the GDR. It was surrounded by hills, valleys and thick forests through which the Iron Curtain ran like a scar. The Fence, as it is referred to, was mostly avoided. Locals surreptitiously watched the illegal West German TV channels. They were subjected to regular surveillance and a lack of basic supplies. Queues outside shops quickly formed when rumours of stock arriving trickled down.

Never Mind, Comrade is a memoir of the author’s childhood. It captures the innocence of a youngster who may question why she is required to live as she does but mostly accepts what is imposed – as children must. She comes to realise that joining ‘voluntary’ youth organisations is the only viable way forward. She dreams of travel to the exotic places she reads of but cannot imagine it ever being allowed.

Many of the author’s wider family fled to the West before the newly erected border was closed. They sent regular ‘care parcels’ filled with goods unavailable in Thuringia. Claudia’s clothes were mostly their hand-me-downs. The parcels contained luxury items such as coffee, fruit and fruit juice – if not taken by border guards.

“The whole world talks about the Berlin Wall, and about Berlin, the divided city. And I don’t know what the fuss is about … In East Berlin, the shop shelves are fully stocked, I saw it myself when we went there for a visit. They have more than two flavours of yogurt. In East Berlin they have bananas and cornflakes, and nothing is rationed.”

The book opens on Claudia’s first day at school, a place she comes to dislike despite her obvious intelligence. Under communist rule pupils were expected to be practical and sporty rather than curious and book loving. She is scared by the anger of the teachers and struggles with rules, questioning their logic. Pupils are taught that those in the West aren’t as lucky as them, that America is a warmonger eager to bring forward the Third World War. The children practice throwing disarmed hand grenades in preparation for this coming conflict.

“There are no Nazis in East Germany, only in West Germany”

“murder is something exclusively reserved for capitalist countries”

What comes across is the family life enjoyed despite deprivations and oppressive undercurrents. Claudia’s parents long to leave the GDR but this cannot be openly acknowledged. When the borders are eventually unbarred, despite her parents’ joy, Claudia is fearful of the changes given the propaganda she has been taught.

Structured in short chapters – mostly less than a page in length – episodes from the author’s early life are recounted with a simplicity that belies their depth. Her grandparents, who live in rooms above the family home, tell stories from the war. Claudia observes Russian soldiers on a visit to her other grandmother, fascinated by the strange language she cannot understand. Holidays are taken in ‘brother’ countries, those also under communist rule, although only when permits are granted and checkpoints allow. Family from the West may occasionally visit, bringing with them an aura of wealth known only from TV shows. Neighbours watch all these comings and goings that must be explained and reported.

There are many injections of humour in observations made, and in the author’s childish reactions. Claudia must keep secrets and behave as expected for the safety of all.

The writing is spare yet evocative, offering a snapshot of day to day life in the GDR. Seen through the eyes of a child it is not an overtly political memoir. Claudia longs for the material goods she believes make Western teenagers confident and cool. And yet she cannot entirely set aside fears instilled that capitalists harbour a desire to kill.

Although a memoir of growing up in a closed country, there are many universal themes and truths. We in the West were taught how awful life under communism was, and while there is obviously some truth to this, what Claudia was taught about the West we see now was not entirely inaccurate either.

Any Cop?: This is a pithy and witty account of a childhood coloured by political dogma. A skilfully rendered memoir of living within a country that is now gone.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Neither Weak Nor Obtuse

Neither Weak Nor Obtuse

I first came across Jake Goldsmith when I was asked to help promote the inaugural Barbellion Prize  – a book prize dedicated to the furtherance of ill and disabled voices in writing – which he founded. I became aware that he lived with chronic illness but had no comprehension of how much this affected his life. Neither Weak Nor Obtuse removed some of the blinkers that exist when casually pondering the difficulties faced by those who struggle with daily tasks most accomplish with unthinking ease. Such lack of consideration may be unintentional, but works such as this are important if only to raise awareness of how society must do better and not turn away when challenging issues are raised.

“Heaven forbid you make the healthies uncomfortable. One better not present a less than heroic image”

The author describes his book as an ‘indulgent memoir’. I came to view it as a philosophical treatise. Although clearly articulated, the thinking is meaty, requiring time to consume and digest. While indirectly personal, thoughts and feelings are often expressed through opinions on others’ written works.

Goldsmith was born with cystic fibrosis, a progressive and life limiting condition for which there is no cure. He makes clear that he is now very ill and has known since childhood he is likely to die before his peers. This prognosis has shaped his attitude and outlook. Nevertheless, he remains a highly intelligent and reactive young man with all the baggage this brings. Within these pages are moving reflections on love, romance and friendship – how some may feel that allowing oneself to care deeply for a person with limited life expectancy could be regarded as an act of ‘self-harm’, and how hurtful and damaging this thought process can be. The author writes of loneliness, of a longing for companionship. It is not a call for sympathy so much as a reminder that the ill and disabled are human beings.

The early sections of the book reflect on how shallow and fickle much thinking is in our current culture of fast media and judgemental reaction.

“With the contemporary world comes mass saturation. Slowing down to reflect goes awry when surrounded by zooming things. And I want something reflective over something so hurried. It is in some ways a primitive wish. A quickened culture, as well as one of mass quantity, neither reflects nor understands itself very well.”

The author spends some time pondering the way society allows itself to be led down pathways without examining cause and effect more deeply – believing the soundbites and shallow virtue blaming – and how this could be changed.

“Our opponents are stronger than we think and we need to act tactically and more astutely”

He cautions against those who believe pulling systems of governance down is necessary as this would merely open the doors for new oppressors to enter.

“Razing the ground does not give a pristine opportunity to rebuild, because most are incapable of that”

Goldsmith is also wary of those who believe their country harbours so much that is bad it should be abandoned, and of those who are so convinced by their own intelligence they look down on anyone who doesn’t agree with their opinions.

“Arrogance comes easily if one can set themselves apart from their peers just by knowledge accumulation”

The ideas presented are woven around the writings of many historic thinkers. The author is obviously well read and capable, peeling back the layers of common complaint and complacency to urge a more profound and reflective debate.

This is not, then, a memoir in the more common vein of the genre. Nevertheless, it offers a window into the experience of living within a painfully failing body while retaining a sharp and questioning, if modestly presented, intellect and open heart.

Not a book to be rushed but one with potential to change a reader’s outlook, especially as regards the ill and disabled and the lives we all live in a shared society. A profoundly moving but also thought provoking and rewarding read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Sagging Meniscus.

Book Review: Will This House Last Forever?

will this house

“The only gift anybody really gives you – a version of the world, a version of yourself. A particular experience of life that is only possible between you.”

Will This House Last Forever, by Xanthi Barker, is a memoir of the relationship the author had with her late father, Sebastian Barker. He was a published poet, ‘not famous, but known to some people’. He bought a plot of land in Greece containing the rubble of a derelict house and rebuilt it. He married three times, fathering four children, although he wasn’t much of a father, at least to the younger two. He left the family he made with Xanthi’s mother when the author was just a few months old citing his need to have space to write.

Sebastian, the son of artistic bohemians, was the victim of a boarding school education. He was intense, overbearing and often drunk, disliking the demands of everyday family life. He was also entertaining with his many stories and anecdotes. He shared his interest in history and science with Xanthi, his youngest daughter. Despite her anger at his many casual cruelties, his neglect, she idolised him.

“you were magical to me. I couldn’t see your limitations.”

The memoir is raw in its honesty but also beautiful in the love it conveys. The author can now see the flaws and facades of the man with his grandiose delusions, striving for achievements that were never quite enough to become what mattered. She recognises that she too acted a part when with him.

“I spent my life trying to be someone else to make a man love me, I don’t know how to do it any other way.”

The book opens three years after Sebastian’s death. The author is trying to process how she feels, her grief and inability to accept that he has really gone forever. She then goes back to recall the tale of when her parents first met and how they got together. It is a love story that couldn’t survive Sebastian’s inability to cope with the presence of young children in his day to day plans. After he left, he would spend time with his son and daughter only when it suited him.

Sebastian died of cancer. Following his terminal diagnosis, Xanthi spent as much time as she could with him. She was hoping for an apology for his past behaviour towards her and her family, an acknowledgement that he was glad she existed despite things previously said. She struggled to imagine her life if he was not available to talk to about their shared interests.

“Even though he wasn’t there when I was little, he was a huge presence. He formed so many of my ideas about the world, my values.”

Chapters jump around in time describing: meetings with Sebastian, holidays spent together, the progression of his illness. After her father’s death it takes Xanthi years to fully accept what has happened. She finds herself talking constantly about him, something a steady stream of boyfriends were expected to accept. She came to realise she was pushing them away for fear of getting hurt again.

“How do you find a person who will really see you?
How can you tell if you are really seen?
How can you tell if you are really seeing them?”

Even with other family members the author could not freely be herself. They did not appear to grieve as she did, to value the detritus her father had left behind which she held on to as if still a part of him. Despite having seen his body after he died, she kept expecting him to reappear.

“How quickly
A CV
Turns into
An obituary”

The story being told is of the author and the effect her father had on her life. It is more a memoir of her feelings and reactions – how his behaviour shaped her – than of him. What is being shared so viscerally is how she coped with losing a father who had for many years shunned the role and, in dying, took from her any chance of his becoming what she had for so long needed him to be. She adored her idea of him, what he was to her when together and apart.

A poignant and powerful reminder that every relationship is unique, a construct created that is rarely understood by others, even those involved. The author writes with compassion and insight while recognising both her and her father’s failings. A tale of the myriad forms of loss and grief, in life as well as death, that holds the reader in its spell.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.

Book Review: Shalimar

shalimar

“I am not listening out for the same pitch or cadence, I am listening out, always acutely, to the differences. These, I know, tell me exactly where home is and all the spaces in between.”

Davina Quinlivan describes herself as of diverse cultural heritage. Her forebears are of Irish, Burmese, Portuguese and Indian descent. Within each ethnicity are other minglings as, throughout time, people have emigrated for work or safety, blending to create new identities. Her father was born in Rangoon but lived in England for most of his adult life. Davina was raised within a close, multi-generational family scattered around the West London area, being told the stories of her relatives’ early experiences in distant parts of the world that have since changed borders and names as colonisers secede. There has never been enough money for them to make return visits to those left behind.

Shalimar is a memoir that explores what the links between home and family mean. It opens with a defining incident in her father’s childhood, made all the more poignant as he has recently been diagnosed with cancer. Davina and her husband have been living with her parents for the past six years. They now decide to move away, to settle in their own place. Over the course of the stories being shared they move from London to Surrey, Berkshire, Hampshire and finally Devon. In the intervening years they have two children, and Davina’s father dies.

Grief, for someone with terminal cancer, begins before the actual death. Davina writes of denial, of running away from what she knows is inevitable, and of how she copes when it happens. Her life in London mostly revolved around the streets where she and her relatives lived. Once moved away she starts to use walking as a coping mechanism rather than a way to simply travel. She discovers the beauty and sensation of nature, the comfort to be found there.

“Even if you pull a tree out of the ground, its roots will have threaded through the other trees around it and will go on providing a scaffolding to the living systems it has dwelled within for years to come.”

Although there is obvious fondness and gratitude for the stability they offered, observations and anecdotes from wider family get togethers are entertaining and recognisable. Being related, especially through marriage, doesn’t necessarily mean being liked.

“In truth, there was a subtle history of unspoken tension between these two sides of my family, which followed them to England. Both families had known each other in India and Burma, but they were very different … These differences would manifest themselves at family gatherings, never openly admitted, but there in the way they interacted with each other. Everyone would be measuring each other’s behaviour.”

Many of the author’s musings focus on how a person is shaped not just by personal history but also by the histories of parents, and they by theirs’. In her children she recognises features they have inherited from both sides of their family. She ponders what they carry forward of her late father.

Quinlivan’s own experiences include the influence of aunts, uncles and grandparents. For example, she remembers, as a young child, being taught to swear in Burmese.

“Though a little blunt and inappropriate, it was a lesson really: in her own way, she was teaching me to be armoured, to be fierce.”

Davina may not have moved as far as her forbears to resettle but the new lands she encounters have similar issues. Ownership is asserted by the powerful not because of love of place but for the right to plunder its wealth. As she walks through fields and woodland she observes how everything eventually goes back to the earth or sea from whence it came. The great oak trees planted when ships were built from them remind her of the journeys her family made to get to England.

“this book is not my ship, it is my father’s, carrying my family safely within it, through all the little gaps in space and time.”

The prose in places is dreamlike and poetic. The grief the author feels is palpable. There is humour and love aplenty but what comes to the fore is how much a part of everything everything is. We are affected by an ecosystem whether or not we acknowledge it.

A hauntingly beautiful memoir that evokes the multiple layers that exist in people and place. An appreciation of life in its myriad incarnations.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Toller.

Book Review: The Long Field

long field

The Long Field, by Pamela Petro, is a memoir wrapped around musings on hiraeth – a Welsh word that approximates to homesickness. The author spends much of the book attempting to more clearly define the word for a wider variety of uses. The writing is also a paean to Wales where Petro, an American, studied for her MA in 1983. In the intervening years she has made more than 27 trips to the country – for work as well as pleasure – and she now directs the Dylan Thomas Summer School in Creative Writing at a small campus in Lampeter, linked to the University of Wales. The school attracts students from a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds – unusual in this remote and insular location. As well as teaching, Petro hopes to inculcate at least a few of her charges with the deep and abiding appreciation of the place, something she felt from the outset.

The author was born and raised in New Jersey, by loving parents who longed for their daughter to find the settled family life they had enjoyed. Petro, however, fell in love with a woman she met in Paris – Marguerite – although she never openly came out to her parents. She tried dating boys in Wales but did not find her happy ever after. What she did find was a feeling for the country that altered her profoundly.

“Wales was an ancient nation with one of the oldest languages in Europe, a proud, parochial, working-class, mostly rural place … I was a suburban, middle class, liberal, naïve American kid. And this place felt like home.”

Petro is eager to learn the Welsh language and muses on the importance and benefits of keeping local cultures alive. She delves into ancient history, particularly around the stone-age megaliths of the region, discussing how traders and invaders brought supposed progress that may have made life easier but also different. Successive changes over time shifted the balance of power, often at a cost to the indigenous population.

Fond as she is of the Welsh countryside and customs, she cautions against blind nostalgia.

“A good friend of mine might be able to travel to Italy, but her grandfather’s rural village of family stories – always conceived by her generation as a future destination – is now a suburb of Naples. The village only exists in memory and imagination. Hiraeth speaks to the salveless ache of immigrants and their descendants.”

To a degree, however, such longing can bring benefits if considered in wider context.

“To be able to put a name to what refugees are experiencing in exile as they seek safety far from home means that we who are already home can more easily put ourselves in their place.”

The author’s ponderings on language, stories, conquest and loss meander through the pages. There is much repetition as she tries to capture the subjects that intrigue her. Despite her obvious love for this small, damp country in western Britain, she comes across as, and admits to being, very American in expectation and outlook. Her positive perspective barely skims the surface of the lives of residents whose choices are stymied through being unable to afford to leave.

Petro is obviously a skilled writer. She provides a clear and concise analysis of Trump’s victory. The historic and literary elements of the book are fascinating. I learned much about the legend of Arthur, and other myths that were once believed. I would, however, have preferred a pithier version. In rambling so freely and repetitively through place and time, engagement occasionally waned.

Perhaps, for me, this memoir would have worked better as an addition to the publisher’s fabulous Monographs series. There is much beauty within its pages but I prefer the threads of a tale to be more tightly woven than this. Having said that, the meandering fits with Petro’s years of trying to pin down an idea that is hard to translate. A thought provoking if somewhat long read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Toller.

Robyn Reviews: In The Wars

‘In the Wars’ is a moving medical memoir by an NHS doctor and Afghan refugee. It offers a fascinating, if horrific, look into life in Afghanistan in the 1990s and the experience of growing up through civil war. It also paints a stark picture of what it’s like to be a refugee in the UK – the rigidness of the asylum system and the impact this can have. Latter chapters explore Dr Arian’s humanitarian efforts – the charity he founded to improve healthcare in Afghanistan and other war-torn countries, and how his experiences have shaped how he approaches humanitarian aid. Dr Arian writes in a simple yet effective way, making profound observations. A highly recommended read.

The story starts with fifteen-year-old Waheed in Feltham Young Offenders Institution. He’s just arrived off the plane from Afghanistan as a refugee, and immediately been arrested on charges of travelling on a false passport – a charge with up to ten years in prison. Waheed is confused and alone, not understand why he’s been arrested when he believes himself a legitimate refugee. His cellmate is there on charges of theft – Waheed doesn’t understand why anyone would steal when they have the chance to legitimately work and earn money. It sets the tone for the rest of the memoir – a story with moments of positivity and hope, but also one that shows the harsh reality of growing up in a warzone and navigating a deliberately hostile immigration system.

We then go back in time to Waheed’s childhood. Born in Kabul, his early life was relatively peaceful, albeit with some strange quirks he never thought to question – not being allowed to play outside, only his mum and eldest sister being allowed to answer the door. The eldest son, he was granted privileges not afforded to his sisters. However, life changed quickly – his father was conscripted into the military, but wanting to remain neutral deserted, leaving the family in a precarious social and financial situation. As conflict escalated, the family fled to their first refugee camp in Pakistan, with the rest of his childhood split between spells in Pakistan and spells returning to Afghanistan in the hope things would be better. The family was regularly separated, and Waheed was forced to grow up far earlier than he should have. There was a constant fear of death, and not just from conflict – he nearly died of tuberculosis in a Pakistani refugee camp aged just five due to a shortage of medicines. It was that experience that cemented in Waheed’s mind that he was going to be a doctor.

These early passages are shocking. Britain is taught woefully little about modern history, and the precise origins of the conflict in Afghanistan were new to me. Dr Arian covers them almost matter-of-factly – because to him, there was no other way of living. This makes them more profound than any dramatisation. There are happier moments – the birth of siblings, trips to family in the Afghan countryside – but these are mere blips in an otherwise bleak canvas. Its difficult to imagine how anyone survived – harder still to think that there are millions living like this today.

Barely a teenager, Waheed decides to enrol to study medicine at the Islamic University in a Pakistani refugee camp. This is not an accredited university, but the only way he can see of achieving his dream of becoming a doctor. However, his family choose to return to Afghanistan – leaving him, at thirteen, living a totally independent life. Waheed is a child surrounded by adults, and reading about this time is heartbreaking. The mental toll of separation is almost inconceivable. However, his joy in his studies is clearly apparent. There’s an interesting dichotomy between his joy of being so close to his dream, and the sadness of everything he’s giving up – plus the knowledge that, as fulfilling as the course is, it won’t actually give a qualification recognised anywhere outside the refugee camp.

In these chapters, Waheed also gives the greatest insight into the political situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and how the rise of various militant factions affects day-to-day life. Again, it’s a fascinating look at a piece of modern history that is rarely contextualised in Western media. Waheed’s drive and determination is admirable, and its impossible not to be affected by the plight of a thirteen-year-old separated from his family in search of a better life.

It’s around this time that Waheed, naturally, starts to think about seeking asylum elsewhere to pursue his dreams. These passages are difficult to read in a different way. Waheed is hugely vulnerable to exploitation, and the way those around him use his plight is horrendous. It’s one thing knowing that the UK – and many other countries’ – immigration departments are designed to put off asylum seekers, another entirely to read first hand how confusing and traumatic the process is. In many ways, Waheed is fortunate – he does make it to the UK, and whilst he’s initially treated like a criminal he eventually succeeds in claiming asylum for both himself and his younger brother. Reading this section, it’s clear Waheed’s success is in a huge part down to both luck and his own intelligence. It’s clear that many others like Waheed will have had stories ending a different way.

Asylum seekers are not allowed to work. They receive housing benefit, but many landlords won’t accept tenants on housing benefit, and the benefits available don’t always cover the cost of living. Young asylum seekers like Waheed can access education, but are not given the knowledge of what qualifications will be useful to them – they must figure this out by themselves. Like many asylum seekers, Waheed works multiple jobs illegally to scrape together enough money to survive and build a life for himself. Once again, his sheer tenacity shines through. It’s difficult to imagine just how hard this period was for him.

Against all the odds, Waheed makes it to medical school – initially Cambridge, then transferring to Imperial for the clinical years, a path that was common then. Here, his struggles take on a different note. A little older, and far less affluent, than his course mates, Waheed struggles to make genuine connections. His cultural background leaves him unsure how to interact with them – women especially. He also, for the first time in his life, starts to struggle academically. Elements of this section are harder for Westerners to relate to – his search for a wife, for example – but it’s interesting seeing why this is so important to Waheed and his family, and how the intersection of his Afghani and Western upbringing affects how he approaches things. The guilt he feels about betraying his roots is palpable and very moving.

The final part of the tale follows Dr Arian as he navigates medical training and sets up his charity, Arian Teleheal. It’s lovely seeing how much joy he gets from his dream job and what being a doctor means to him. After so much suffering, it’s also wonderful to see him settled and happy with a family of his own. The guilt is still there – most of his family is still in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and he worries about leaving them behind – but there’s also the awareness that he’s helped them far more by taking the risk and leaving than he would have by staying.

The sections on the charity are interesting, but after a time become a bit repetitive. Arian Teleheal is a wonderful organisation, allowing doctors in countries like Afghanistan and Syria to access the knowledge of doctors practising in the Western world. Its expansion and achievements are incredible, but unfortunately the end of the memoir turns into a sort of list of them, losing some of the emotional impact of the rest of Waheed’s story. Teleheal appears to be the only reason he’s released a memoir – in the hope that his story will drive further investment and achievements for the charity – which is admirable. I hope it succeeds. It’s a shame, therefore, that the Teleheal section is the one with the least poignancy and resonance to the reader.

Overall, ‘In the Wars’ is a powerful and moving story about living through conflict, the refugee experience, and one man’s determination to give back. Dr Arian is clearly an incredible person and I hope his charitable endeavours have the success they deserve. Recommended for those who want to learn more about an important piece of modern history and those just looking for a powerful, moving read.

Thanks to NetGalley and Penguin Random House for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Bantam Press
Hardback: 17th June 2021

The Barbellion Prize – A Roundup

At the end of last month I agreed to help promote the inaugural Barbellion Prize by reviewing its shortlist. I wrote about this here. All I initially knew about the books selected were their titles and the aims of the prize. I trusted that the judges would choose books worth reading – this proved a good call.

This year all shortlisted books were memoirs. It quickly became clear that each was structured differently, reflecting the authors’ skills – including use of language.

Most were beautifully written, a pleasure to read. Experiences were not mined for misery – to garner sympathy – but rather to help raise awareness of issues faced.

Over the past couple of weekends I have posted my thoughts on each book. Below are links to my reviews.

On 12th February, Golem Girl was announced as the winner of the prize. I have no quibbles with the judges’ choice – plus the amazing artwork by the author complemented the text perfectly. My personal favourite was probably Sanatorium, for its lyricism, but the list was so strong there was no disappointment at the outcome.

I was not the only book blogger approached to review the shortlist. If you would like to find out what other readers thought of these titles, check out the following blogs.

My thanks to the Barbellion Prize for arranging with the publishers for me to be sent copies of the four shortlisted books. I feel privileged to have been involved.