Book Review: Seek the Singing Fish

singing fish

“People could slash and seethe over who owned what chunk of land all they wanted but I understood it wasn’t theirs to begin with”

Seek the Singing Fish, by Roma Wells, tells the story of Artemila De Zilwa, a young Sri Lankan woman who grew up during the years of her country’s civil war. Told from her perspective, the experiences recounted are not for the faint-hearted. She addresses herself to Shi, ‘breath of life’, and describes the traumas she suffered as her ‘twisted voyage’. What we have here is an odyssey shadowed by the appalling cruelties man inflicts, even on his own kind – the commodification and destruction of lives by those seeking control.

Mila has a deep appreciation for and curiosity about the natural world. It is this that sustains through the many and varied aspects of situations inflicted on her. She compartmentalises memories, closing doors on some and opening others for comfort. The knowledge of creatures abilities and habits shared are fascinating – a highlight amidst the disturbing accounts of abuse and tragedy.

A prologue sets the scene for what is to come. Shi is told that Mila has a mangled face, disfigured by shrapnel – ‘I am beauty spoiled; Lanka corrupted.’ The first of the three parts into which the story is divided then covers her childhood.

Mila came from an intelligent and caring family. Her parents married for love, a choice that estranged them from their wider clans. She was closer to her father, an English professor who instilled in his young daughter a love of books and learning. He listened carefully to her and encouraged her interest in wildlife. Her mother favoured Mila’s little brother, Ravi. Both children appreciated the delicious food their mother could conjure from whatever ingredients were available.

The early pages explain the reasons why war raged all around. None were spared from the violence – the tit for tat torture and destruction. Mila’s father would talk to her in metaphors, trying to offer explanations for the madness of the conflict. Both he and his daughter understood that, despite the propaganda, more connected those fighting each other than divided.

“we look for differences in the Vedas, the Quram, the Bible and the Sutras when their ink runs with the same intent. After all, the very word religion means to bind in its Latin origin.”

As with so many in this time and place, grief soon fractures the family, each survivor dealing with the aftermath without support. They are then challenged by the devastation wreaked by a tsunami. The coming together of warring sides to cope and rebuild is short lived. Mila’s eyes are opened to the dark side of nature as well as its beauty.

Mila finds solace with an older friend made at a local market, and in caring for a stray dog. She meets Kai, a young fisherman orphaned and placed in the care of an alcoholic uncle.

“He reminded me of the elephants who’d undergone phajan, the training regimen used to beat and starve them into submission for the tourist industries.”

Their burgeoning love story is schismed by the war.

The second part of the book is set in London and offers yet another seriously disturbing aspect of human behaviour. Mila knows to keep her head down if she is to survive this life but is once again scarred by what she sees happening around her. For a time she works as a cleaner in a wealthy family’s home – invisible to them amidst their sterile surrounds.

“it was all for show; lifeless items to be admired but not touched. A gallery disguised as a house masquerading as a home.”

The third and final part of Mila’s story offers closure of sorts. There are elements of luck – timely coincidence – to achieve this. Nothing is sugar coated but this is, perhaps, the least satisfying of what is a desperately hard hitting account of man’s inhumanity.

Woven throughout the horrific descriptions of abuse are stunningly beautiful evocations of the natural world. Sitting alongside such challenges as living with PTSD, the Sri Lankan lagoons, even the parks of London, become oasis.

The language used to tell this tale is impressively rich but never cloying. Mila never asks for sympathy but rather seeks understanding.  While not always easy to consider man’s behaviour, there is much beauty to be found elsewhere when looked for. This story offers a metaphor for the lives we all must live – a way of coping.

A thought-provoking but always engaging tale interlaced with stunning imagery. For those able and willing to consider the myriad traumas of conflict, this is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, époque press.

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Book Review: The Day Nina Simone Stopped Singing

nina simone stopped

The Day Nina Simone Stopped Singing, by Darina Al Joundi (translated by Helen Vassallo), tells the story of a young Lebanese woman, Noun, who grew up in Beirut and, despite the vicious fighting and ferocious aerial bombardment, chose to continue to live there through the years of war. Although born into a Muslim family, Noun’s freedom fighter father was ‘fiercely secular’. He encouraged his daughter to embrace a guilt free existence, to live as she pleased.

The book is described as a monologue and was first written to be performed as a one woman play in France where it proved a sensation. The structure resembles that of a playscript, including some directions. In the preface, the author states:

“Noun is not me, but she is a part of me. A part that I love and that life and society will no longer tolerate: she isn’t allowed to shout loud and clear what she thinks in real life, but at the theatre she’s applauded for it.”

A rebel from childhood, Noun is unafraid to express herself in a way few women, especially Muslim women, are more usually depicted. She is profane and open about her desires. She laughs long and loud about her enjoyment of drugs and sex. Given that she was regularly abused, suffering serious physical assault at the hands of her first husband and other family members, this laughter comes across at times as inappropriate, almost hysterical. Perhaps this is to encourage the reader to judge her actions, something her father refused to do.

“he never judged. He didn’t believe in guilt, and used to say no-one should feel guilt for doing what they want. I wanted to see how much he could take.”

The story opens at her father’s funeral. Family and friends are following Muslim tradition, something Noun knows her father would not have wanted. She stops the recorded recitation from the Qur’an, locking other mourners out of the room where the body lies and replacing the cassette with Nina Simone and other music he enjoyed. This and further actions that follow lead to her family having her locked away.

Noun adored her father but came to question why he so rarely criticised the choices she made. Was she his lab rat? Did he forget she was his daughter? The violence that surrounds Noun in the war takes its toll.

“It’s strange, that desire for violence, as if the violence of the war wasn’t enough. We were almost as criminal as the people who went around killing each other. We didn’t have guns or machetes, but we were so twisted with ourselves, with each other, pushing one another to do the craziest things”

When her father dies, Noun loses what protection he could offer. She is now at the mercy of her Muslim brother-in-law, the new head of the family. His actions are encouraged by witnesses who feel her behaviour requires correction.

“You didn’t give me freedom, you gave me a poisoned chalice. How could I be free all on my own surrounded by millions of lunatics?”

The themes in this monologue offer up much to consider: the damage caused by religion, war, familial oppression. Noun comes across as unapologetically alive to the appetites of a hot-blooded human being. She suffers appalling violence but continues to hold close the tenets her father instilled. Noun may have her flaws but remains strong in her determination to shrug off the straitjackets society tries to impose on her – to retain agency.

A remarkable piece of writing that, while disturbing in places, offers up a fresh perspective of life in war torn Beirut. It is a challenging, uncompromising, intensely thought-provoking work.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Naked Eye.

Book Review: The Photographer

This review was written for and originally published on Bookmunch.

The Photographer by Meike Ziervogel is proof that a consuming and fully detailed story may be told in under two hundred pages. The depths of the novel are to be found as much in what is implicit as from the elegantly crafted prose. There is insight and interest, flavour and nuance. Such writing deserves appreciation.

Set in Germany around the time of the Second World War, the protagonist is a young woman named Trude who lives with her controlling mother, Agatha. The generation before suffered hardship due to scandal which Agatha and her war scarred husband toiled to put behind them. Agatha is determined that her daughter will be the fruit of their labour.

Trude understands that her mother wants only what is best for her yet has a need to live her life for herself. When she meets a young photographer named Albert, who makes her feel joyously alive, she ignores Agatha’s derision for this boy ‘from the gutter’. They marry, travel and have a child who they name Peter.

Albert and Trude have a somewhat turbulent marriage, the negative aspects of which drive Agatha to intervene. She regards her actions as necessary for the good of her child and beloved grandson. The result is Albert being sent to fight in the war leaving his small family to seek a means to survive without him. Trude must decide how to deal with her mother’s betrayal.

The war reaches its conclusion and there follows a massive and confusing exodus from east to west. In a refugee camp near Hamburg the family are reunited but much has changed. Peter is not the son Albert envisaged, the child is unused to the presence of a father. Between them stand Trude and Agatha who must make difficult choices with the balance of their family, the direction of their futures lives, at stake.

Told from each of the imperfect characters’ points of view this tale offers a candid look at family dynamics and hurts caused as assumptions are made. At its heart is a love story, not a romance, that spans the three generations. Pragmatic decisions have led to difficult truths being accepted. The challenge is to leave them at rest.

Any Cop?: The writing is spare yet strikingly affective, touching the essence of each individual with precision. This is an impressive work of literary fiction that remains compelling and accessible. Like fine wine, it is best savoured and shared.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Orange Grove

The Orange Grove, by Larry Tremblay (translated by Sheila Fischman), is the second book in the publisher’s 2017 East and West: Looking Both Ways series. The story opens in an Arabic country wracked by war, where nine year old twin boys, Ahmed and Aziz, live with their parents in the shade of the family orange grove. Their grandparent’s house has just been destroyed by a missile fired from nearby mountains, killing the elderly couple. Insurgents appear at their door demanding that the family seek revenge.

The boys’ father, Zahed, is persuaded that he must choose one of his sons to become a martyr for the cause, a suicide bomber who will destroy an arsenal of weapons held by the enemy. His choice and the reasoning he presents will tear the family apart. The surviving son must somehow learn to live with what has been done.

The spare yet poignantly articulate prose conveys a challenging depth of emotion. It is difficult to comprehend how a parent could ever be so convinced of the worth of their country or religion to willingly sacrifice their own child to the cause, and how this would make those considered expendable feel. In presenting this as a story of family rather than a particular conflict, and from the young boys’ point of view, the reader is left to consider the day to day nature of extremism. It is a story of the cost of war but also of belief, and how little difference exists between those who define themselves as enemies.

The reveals in the denouement are shocking yet the last line brings hope. An understanding is reached on how little those who have not directly experienced war can understand its lasting effects, and how those who have suffered yet survived must seek their own absolution. All of this is told in writing that oozes lyricism and an engrossing sense of place. Despite the distressing subject matter this remains a beautiful read.

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