‘Both very real and highly abstract’ [book review]

A review of The Border by Erika Fatland, translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson


There is a definite sense of journey’s end on reaching the final pages of Erika Fatland’s The Border – for the reader as well as for the author herself. Not only is the book large in size (almost six hundred pages in hardback is certainly not to be sniffed at), but it is vast in scope, and written with a meticulous attention to detail that requires unwavering concentration at several points. At the same time – thanks in no small part to Kari Dickson’s pitch-perfect translation of Fatland’s strong, often sardonic voice – I felt as though I could have gone on reading this book for much longer. As much as it gave me, there was always more I wanted to know: a sign, surely, of descriptive travel writing of the very best variety.

Cover image The Border

Having dipped in and out of The Border over a period of several weeks, my reading journey was perhaps longer than others, but still nothing compared to Fatland’s twenty-thousand-kilometre odyssey around the border of Russia, the journey that provided the impetus for this book. As she explains in the opening chapter, the border actually extends over 60,932 kilometres, which makes it considerably longer than the circumference of the earth (that comes in at just 40,075 kilometres). Fourteen countries surround Russia, from North Korea in the south-east to Norway in the far north-west, and Fatland sets out to travel through each of them, plus the Northwest Passage – not always along the border itself, but visiting places that she hopes will give her a sense both of the countries as individual states, and also of their relationship with Russia. The premise is simple, but unique: to describe a country without setting foot in it.

The idea, apparently, came to Fatland following a dream in which she ‘was wandering around on a vast map. [Her] footsteps followed a wavy red line: the border of Russia’. If this sounds a little too esoteric, there’s no need to be concerned: as a narrator and traveller, Fatland proves herself to be clear-sighted and hardy, going about her adventures and then relaying them to us in a tone that brooks no nonsense. Though deeply interested in philosophical questions surrounding national identity and the nature of borders, which she describes correctly as ‘both very real and highly abstract’, Fatland never loses sight of the ordinary, be that the day-to-day life of people she meets or the countless small absurdities she encounters on the road. For a book dealing with such a large country and questions, The Border is surprisingly – refreshingly – rooted in the mundane.

This eye for detail and caustic sense of humour is what makes Fatland’s writing so accessible, and quite distinctive within the travel writing genre. Steering away from grand descriptions of landscapes – though she does do scenery well, she keeps it brief and atmospheric – she focuses instead on telling people’s stories, recounting historical events and relating her impressions of each country in a rapid-fire burst of personal narrative. Small scenes are telling – dodgy hotel rooms, drawn-out border crossings – and though always keen to strike up a conversation with people, Fatland seems to enter each new country with a fair amount of reserve. As a result, she is just as likely to recount a disappointing meal as she is to describe an ornate hilltop church, an approach that cleaves to the realities of travel and provides a credible flavour of place. More than this, it draws the reader into the story – in sharing jokes with us about bizarre conversations or frightening incidents, she helps us to become part of the scene, rather than mere observers.

Fatland, who speaks eight languages and is an anthropologist by training, clearly has a nose for the facts and can draw stories out of her interviewees that range from entertaining to tragic, but she also excels at making complex history simple to grasp. The job is not to be envied: Russia is a complicated country (and large, as mentioned), which comes with countless episodes of conflict and political upheaval to untangle, not to mention notable figures with very similar names. Though of course she doesn’t have the page count to do any more than sketch the bare bones of history, Fatland gets straight to the heart of Russia’s relationship with each of its smaller neighbours, selecting the most important events that bind them and explaining these in lucid prose. Despite having travelled through several of these countries myself, I learned a lot more about them from this book.

Notwithstanding Fatland’s evidently strong grip on the situation – a level-headedness that shines through in her writing and made me feel she would be the perfect travel companion – she does occasionally lose sight of her goal, giving unequal weight to countries or events that seem, in the end, to have little to do with Russia. This is not in itself a problem – the countries she visits are all fascinating, and of course the narrative should pay more attention to them than to their neighbour – but the net result is a book that leaves even the author with ‘more questions than answers’. Perhaps the only true response to the question of what it is like to share a border with Russia is a rather understated line from the very first chapter: ‘Being Russia’s neighbour has never been easy.’ The Border proves beyond doubt that it hasn’t, but also gives us to understand how Russia and its neighbours – and relations between them – continue to shape global politics today.

‘The Russian Empire was so vast that even the tsar was not sure where it ended,’ writes Fatland, but merciless expansion is not the method she has plumped for. Despite its enormous size, The Border feels relatively pared back, not to say sparse in certain sections – I could have done with more on Georgia and the Baltic states, for instance. Yet she is wise not to overwhelm her reader, and in other sections makes excellent judgement calls: North Korea, for example, can only be visited on an official guided tour that is planned to the minute, with the result that ‘travelogues from North Korea are often very similar’. Recognising this, she has stripped down these chapters to consist mainly of conversations amid snatches of history – elements that really are unique to her journey.

Travelling, researching and writing The Border was a monumental undertaking, and in many other writers’ hands it would surely have failed as a book. Yet Fatland displays warmth, intelligence, humanity and a great sense of humour, all of which Kari Dickson has flawlessly transported into English for a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience. It didn’t teach me as much as I’d expected about Russia, but a lot about history, politics and, most importantly, life in fourteen very different countries. Fatland deserves the highest praise for The Border:an illuminating, compassionate and entertaining journey that I for one would be happy to go on again.


‘We will need to learn to let go’ [book review]

A review of We Are The Weather by Jonathan Safran Foer


At the end of my month of reading about the environment came this, the book I didn’t know I needed. In a couple of hundred pages and some very well-chosen words, Jonathan Safran Foer has managed to do what no other writer or journalist has succeeded in so far: make me take a long, hard look at myself and my impact on the environment, convince me I need to make a serious change, and motivate me to start right now. Though this book won’t be for everyone, its brave approach resonated powerfully with me. We Are The Weather is a book I am glad to have read, and one I only wish I had come to sooner.

Cover image We Are The Weather

Composed as a series of short-form essays, lists and experimental non-fiction, Jonathan Safran Foer’s We Are The Weather takes on the problematic of climate change – and, more specifically, makes the case for giving up animal products. The author knows this is a difficult topic to tackle, particularly in America (the main audience for whom he appears to be writing), and so spends the first sixty-or-so pages skirting around the issue, discussing climate change in general and how we all need to be doing something about it. After successfully laying the foundation of his case, he moves on to the real subject of his research and the bold but by now reasonable-seeming proposition that we should all stop eating animal products – even if only for breakfast and lunch. Of course, full-time veganism would be better, he argues, yet even this half-transition would dramatically reduce our carbon footprint. Even for him, he admits, it is a major lifestyle change – not to say sacrifice – yet it is one of the simplest and most effective things we can all do to slow the impending climate catastrophe.

My previous encounters with Jonathan Safran Foer had mainly been in the world of fiction – his novels are among my favourites, ones I have read, re-read and even written a dissertation on – and so I was delighted to find his distinctive literary voice coming through in this book as well. Bold and experimental as ever, We Are The Weather tries on various literary guises, including chapters consisting only of bullet points, an imaginary conversation between the author and himself, and the letter to his sons that forms the book’s ending. Though some are doubtless easier to read than others – stylistically, the conversation was less effective for me, though its substance made a big impression – this constant switching of modes kept me fully engaged with the book, as well as redoubling its impact. If a prose style becomes too familiar, there can be a danger of the reader slightly switching off – which, with a topic like this, is far from ideal. Here, unlike anything I have ever read on the subject before, I found myself gripped from one page to the next, absorbing everything I learned and, most importantly, letting it take hold.

Perhaps it was the mixture of styles that worked (it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I would urge you to try it all the same), or perhaps I am simply more inclined to believe an author I have long admired and whose voice rings true to me. Whatever it was, We Are The Weather touches on several important points that had an effect nothing short of enlightening. Learning just how many emissions are produced by animal products is shocking enough, but Foer takes his argument further, wading into the muddied waters of ‘but what can I as an individual really achieve/why should I make these sacrifices when no one else seems to?’ and suddenly making them clear. The analogies he uses – drivers pulling off the road to let an ambulance pass, for example – are as logical as they are varied, and had the unsettling twinned effect of both shaming me into action and being so non-judgemental in tone as to encourage me. I left this book seeing the urgency of the situation but also, crucially, feeling that individuals can make a difference.

As Foer so correctly identifies, cutting right to the heart of the problem, climate change is too big an issue for most people to grasp. I am without doubt one of those who claim to be environmentally conscious without really acting on it; We Are The Weather made me see this, and provided the impetus to make a change. Whether you subscribe to the suggestion of giving up animal products for two main meals or prefer to take a different approach (in the chapter headed ‘Not all actions are equal’, the environmental impacts of driving, flying and having children are also illuminated), the underlying message is a simple one: we must make choices now, or the choice will be made for us. It is a message encapsulated by one line that has stayed with me – and always will, I think – ‘Whether or not we address climate change, we will need to learn to let go’.

It feels strange to admit to needing a book written not by a climate scientist or an environmental activist to make me truly see and acknowledge a problem that has been there all along. But this is exactly what We Are The Weather understands, and why it is so important. Climate change is enormous and scary and almost too much to deal with, and in the face of more pressing emergencies it can easily be put off till a nebulous future. But, as Foer states, ‘we do not have the luxury of living in our time’. The past is deeply entwined with the present – powerfully symbolised here by the author’s relationship with his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor – just as the present is entwined with the future, and so too the individual with the whole. Using a mixture of sparse, hard-hitting facts and beautifully memorable imagery (take the wildflowers that grew in the Coliseum following the fall of the Roman Empire), We Are The Weather brings home in a resounding manner the interconnection of all things.

Fittingly, it is Everything Is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel, that I’d name as one of the books that have made the most impact on me in literary terms – after finishing We Are The Weather, illuminated is how things felt to me. All of a sudden the situation seems clear: urgent, yet not entirely hopeless. It can feel trite to write that a book changed your life – but occasionally, there aren’t any better words.


The Monthly Booking: May 2021

Reading lists have to be practical, as well as sometimes thematic or current, so this month for me is all about trying to clear up my digital bookshelf. Many of these are review copies I am very grateful to have the chance to read, including one of the titles shortlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize.

As ever, not having a theme means I am ranging far and wide in terms of setting and subject – from Senegalese soldiers fighting in the trenches of the First World War to an exploration of Indigenous language and culture in Australia, from the decline of Communist Europe to a brutal genocide in Eastern Anatolia. In non-fiction, publishing later this month is Edmund Richardson’s Alexandria, which explores the quest of desert adventurer Charles Masson to find the lost Afghan city of Alexandria Beneath the Mountains – the perfect piece of escapism.

Other titles not appearing on this list but which I will be reading soon include Raül Garrigasait’s The Others, translated by Tiago Miller and published by the brilliant indie Fum d’Estampa Press, and Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Baby, one of the only books from the Women’s Prize longlist I have felt moved to pick up more or less immediately. And in case you missed it, last month I wrote a review for Lunate of Polly Barton’s Fifty Sounds, an absolutely extraordinary memoir of language learning, translation, identity and finding your place in the world. One of the best books I’ve read this year so far, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

With high expectations for this month too, my reading list for May is as follows:

Fiction

The Yield by Tara June Winch (HarperVia)

What the publisher says: ‘Told in three masterfully woven narratives, The Yield is a celebration of language and an exploration of what makes a place “home”. A story of a people and a culture dispossessed, it is also a joyful reminder of what once was and what endures – a powerful reclaiming of Indigenous language, storytelling, and identity, that offers hope for the future.’

Non-fiction

Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City by Edmund Richardson (Bloomsbury)

What the publisher says: ‘For centuries the city of Alexandria Beneath the Mountains was a meeting point of East and West. Then it vanished. In 1833 it was discovered in Afghanistan by the unlikeliest person imaginable: Charles Masson, an ordinary working-class boy from London turned deserter, pilgrim, doctor, archaeologist and highly respected scholar [. . .] This is a wild journey through nineteenth-century India and Afghanistan, with impeccably researched storytelling that shows us a world of espionage and dreamers, ne’er-do-wells and opportunists, extreme violence both personal and military, and boundless hope. At the edge of empire, amid the deserts and the mountains, it is the story of an obsession passed down the centuries.’

Translation

At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis (Pushkin Press)

What the publisher says: ‘Alfa and Mademba are two of the many Senegalese soldiers fighting in the Great War. Together they climb dutifully out of their trenches to attack France’s German enemies whenever the whistle blows, until Mademba is wounded, and dies in a shell hole with his belly torn open. Without his more-than-brother, Alfa is alone and lost amidst the savagery of the conflict. He devotes himself to the war, to violence and death, but soon begins to frighten even his own comrades in arms. How far will Alfa go to make amends to his dead friend? At Night All Blood is Black is a hypnotic, heartbreaking rendering of a mind hurtling towards madness.’

Independent Publisher

Every Fire You Tend by Sema Kaygusuz, translated by Nicholas Glastonbury (Tilted Axis Press)

What the publisher says: ‘In 1938, in the remote Dersim region of Eastern Anatolia, the Turkish Republic launched an operation to erase an entire community of Zaza-speaking Alevi Kurds. Inspired by those brutal events, and the survival of Kaygusuz’s own grandmother, this densely lyrical and allusive novel grapples with the various inheritances of genocide, gendered violence and historical memory as they reverberate across time and place from within the unnamed protagonist’s home in contemporary Istanbul.’

German

Die unschärfe der Welt (The Blurriness of the World)by Iris Wolff (Klett-Cotta)

What New Books in German says: ‘The Blurriness of the World is a kaleidoscopic portrait of life in Communist Eastern Europe. Iris Wolff achieves the extraordinary feat of condensing four generations of family life, along with all the attendant emotions and drama, into a little under two hundred pages. The Blurriness of the World is notable for its vivid characterisation and the subtle, evocative power of its storytelling, interleaving a moving tale of personal love and loss with the historical context of the decline of Communism in Europe.’


‘Nobody was exactly how you wanted them to be’ [book review]

A review of Love in Five Acts by Daniela Krien, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch


The title of Daniela Krien’s latest novel to appear in English is, in the German original, Die Liebe im Ernstfall. While a direct interpretation (Love in Case of Emergency) has indeed been chosen for the US edition of Jamie Bulloch’s translation, this is one of the rare cases in which I find the new UK English title – Love in Five Acts – to be better than the original. Because the novel is exactly that: an exploration of love, in all its many forms, presented in five stories that read much like the acts of a play. Separate yet intrinsically linked, and narrated with such a sense of place and character that at the end of each one it is almost possible to see the curtain falling on the actors.

Cover image Love in Five Acts

It’s been a while since I found myself so totally absorbed in a novel as I was in Love in Five Acts, which is testament not only to Daniela Krien’s brilliantly realist storytelling, but also to Jamie Bulloch’s vivid translation. Though none of the five sections is particularly long, each concentrates on a different character with such depth and nuance – despite the rather spartan prose style – that I felt by the end as though I knew each woman intimately. And this in turn gives rise to the only disappointment I felt in the novel, which was that most of its sections ended too abruptly, before I was ready to leave them (in several cases it really is as though the lights in the auditorium have suddenly been switched off). In a sense, it might have been better to approach it as a collection of five short stories, allowing time to digest each one fully before moving on to the next.

This kind of reading might also do away with any potential confusion caused by the fact that in terms of chronology, Krien likes to jump around unannounced. Although this doesn’t really disturb the narrative flow, a small amount of detective work is required on the part of the reader – characters have the habit of reappearing in one another’s stories, but often years before or after the events that take place in their own. It can sometimes take a moment to place them in the context of what we know about their lives, but the pleasure of recognition each time feels as though Krien has deliberately placed a series of small surprises for her readers, a reward for having paid attention and become absorbed in her characters’ world.

The world in question is Leipzig, though the setting is kept general enough that it could be almost any city in Europe. Krien is skilled in focusing on the smaller details – the layout of streets and houses, the colours of trees, the atmosphere of a bar – and a few recurring motifs, such as the smell of ramsons (wild garlic) or the seasonal migration of swifts, but while these build a vivid picture of her characters’ immediate surroundings, they are in no way specific to Leipzig and so offer the reader a form of familiarity. No wild flights of fancy are necessary to dive fully into the novel, whose main concern after all is with relationships, the twists and turns of a life, and how we continually reinvent – or rediscover – ourselves.

As the cover suggests, the five women in Love in Five Acts are all poised on the edge of something. Aged mainly in their thirties and forties – though we do encounter some, like Brida, as a younger woman – their lives have turned out quite differently to how they expected. Relationships have developed and fallen apart, children have been born and lost, and the established dynamics between parents and children, sisters or best friends have often shifted dramatically. A sense of helplessness reigns in many of the characters’ lives – Paula, for example, with whom the book opens, seems to have been a victim of circumstance in both her failed marriage and the tragic death of her child – while others fight with a grim determination to carve out a life at least approximating the one they once imagined. Some sections focus on a period of only a few years, others take a longer view, but each narrates some kind of turning point: the moment at which each character comes to the sobering realisation that, including themselves, ‘nobody was exactly how you wanted them to be’.

It is in many ways a poignant message, yet, just like its characters, Love in Five Acts is overwhelmingly strong. It offers a clear-sighted perspective of modern society and the roles women play (or are expected to play) within it. Themes such as infidelity, bereavement, motherhood and abortion are all tackled with sensitivity and an unwavering realism: Krien is never melodramatic, but nor does she avoid these topics, which are all threads in the fabric of contemporary society. While each woman is vastly different in character and accordingly experiences life in a distinctive way, they are bound by a common struggle to make sense of their lives, which goes beyond individual circumstance and delves into what it is to be human. From an apparently straightforward idea, Daniela Krien has created a many-layered and rewarding novel.

A structure like this – five interconnected lives – is certainly nothing new in literature, yet again the author offers her readers a pleasant surprise by varying the degrees of separation between her characters. As friends, sisters and rival lovers (rather than, say, merely a group of friends) we are treated to a refreshing take on how our lives intersect with others’, even when we may not recognise the overlap. Though Krien’s sparing, wry prose has been compared to that of Sally Rooney, the overall emotional effect of the novel reminded me very much of Bernardine Evaristo and the final words of Girl, Woman, Other: ‘this is about being together’.

Love in Five Acts takes five lives and binds them together, as well as tying them to the reader’s. Meticulously crafted and superbly translated, it is a novel that is almost effortlessly compelling, offering a message of solidarity and allowing its readers to find parts of themselves within it. While the ending might leave us hanging, it is drenched in hope – a winning formula that can only leave us looking forward to more writing by Daniela Krien.


Love in Five Acts by Daniela Krien, translated by Jamie Bulloch, is published today in the UK by MacLehose Press and available in digital and hardback. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a digital review copy.

Blog blast Love in Five Acts

‘An anger to swallow the world’ [book review]

A review of Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy


A couple of years ago I read Richard Powers’ The Overstory, and I have never looked at a tree the same way since. A similar sleight of hand is achieved by Charlotte McConaghy in Migrations, a searing and highly accomplished debut novel that takes on the problem of climate change from a different angle: species decline. Before reading Migrations I had rarely (perhaps never) expended a moment’s thought on Arctic terns, but now I find myself thinking of them – and all birds in general – through a slightly altered, sharper lens.

Cover image Migrations

Mildly dystopian, Migrations is set in an undated future in which most of the wildlife on Earth has vanished. All major species, from monkeys to lions, have been extinguished by climate change, hunting and habitat loss wrought by humans; during the course of the novel, a lone surviving wolf is found and taken to a Scottish sanctuary, where, lacking a partner, she can serve nothing but educational purposes. The seas have been fished to the point that commercial vessels are banned to save what is left, and the skies are largely devoid of birds. Yet the true extent of the devastation is revealed to us only gradually – aside from these changes, the world of the novel could be the one we live in now. It is a twist that has been well managed by McConaghy, who avoids imagining other details of the future – technologies might be the natural choice, or major world events – and thereby allows the reader to feel instantly at home, albeit with a growing sense of discomfort that something about this world is not quite right.

Well executed, too, is the emotional pitch of Migrations, which strikes a tricky-to-find balance between grief, resignation and fury at what the planet has become. The message is abundantly clear, yet McConaghy manages never to be didactic – a tough job for an author setting out to write a novel whose backbone is a journey in pursuit of the world’s last Arctic terns. Her success in this regard is largely due to Franny Stone, the novel’s incredibly strong narrator, who seems to emit a kind of force field that makes all other subjects – even climate change – feel rather secondary, at least while reading. Only after stepping back from the novel did I feel able to grasp the bigger picture properly, but it was this core message that stayed with me, long after Franny’s influence had begun to fade.

From the opening scene on the coast of Greenland to a dramatic denouement in the Antarctic (which, crucially, leaves us not without a sense of hope), Migrations follows Franny Stone on her quest to track possibly the last ever journey of the Arctic terns. These seabirds, which nest mainly in Iceland, Greenland and the Netherlands, are famed for having the longest migratory path in the world: their annual round-trip from the northern hemisphere to the Antarctic involves between 44,000 and 56,000 miles of flying. It is an extreme journey to make, and tracking it from a boat seems equally absurd, yet Franny manages to convince both the reader and Ennis Malone, captain of an Alaskan fishing vessel, that it is of vital importance if there is to be any hope of conserving the species. As the journey proceeds, however, from the icy shores of Greenland to stormy waters around Newfoundland, then down along the distant coastline of South America, it becomes clear that Franny isn’t necessarily who she says she is, and that the real migration under observation here is her own, not the birds’.

Migrations is narrated in short, sharp sections all bound together by a dreamlike quality yet simmering with emotional tension. While one strand details Franny’s journey south, the chronology of her migration is constantly intercut with sections set mainly in Galway, but also some in Australia. Franny’s past is a traumatic one, full of long-buried secrets, which are gradually exposed alongside a retelling of her wild, impulsive, deeply loving marriage to Niall, a biology professor at Galway University who was the first person to introduce her to Arctic terns. Niall’s rage and despair at the destruction of the natural world is passed on to Franny, but despite featuring only in flashbacks it is his voice that rings loudest in terms of conservation. Though Franny feels a strong affinity with the ocean and cares about the health of the planet, she is a little too wrapped up in her own dilemmas to be a true advocate for any other creature. Niall is the character who utters sentences like (of the terns), ‘Nothing will ever be as brave again,’ whereas Franny’s modus operandi is to feel ‘an anger to swallow the world’. Their outlooks are similar, yet different enough to create an interesting character study and the interpersonal tensions from which the novel lives.

The scope of Migrations is quite frankly enormous – McConaghy would have been ambitious enough to write about Franny’s journey and the destruction of the natural world, yet she has chosen to add layer upon layer of thorny, human-focused issues. Admittedly, these are gripping, and the strong characterisation made me feel invested in Franny’s story, even if at times I wanted to shake her out of yet another self-centred tantrum. The implication of the narrative is striking – we are usually so absorbed in ourselves that we fail to see what is going on around us, whether in terms of the planet or other people – but at times the drama was heaped on to excess, making me slightly lose my faith in the workings of the plot. Another mild disappointment is that the device McConaghy employs to conceal Franny’s real reason for her journey (and the true state of her relationship with Niall) has been used often enough to make it unfortunately transparent. (At the risk of spoiling things, anyone who has read We Need To Talk About Kevin is likely to have this problem too.) With this element of mystery lacking, the narrative dramatics could occasionally seem overblown.

Having said this, Migrations is an easy book to become absorbed in, and certainly leaves a lasting impression. Though perhaps trying to make her narrative do too much, McConaghy is a gifted storyteller and especially skilled when it comes to setting. Her descriptive passages are lyrical and atmospheric, without ever being too heavy on the adjectives, and that the story remained largely believable while conveying an important, convincing message is an achievement not to be sniffed at. I also enjoyed spending time in Franny Stone’s head; she is a flawed and thus authentic character, who won me over with her singular determination and simultaneous need for protection. As a literary character, she – and in many ways McConaghy’s novel as a whole – is a near-perfect reflection of an Arctic tern: brave, distinctive, fragile, and driven by a force far stronger than her.


‘Everyone in their rightful place’ [book review]

A review of Andrea Víctrix by Llorenç Villalonga, translated from the Catalan by P. Louise Johnson


The high-rise streets are lit by lurid advertisements and a slogan flashing in neon letters above the constant stream of traffic: ‘PROGRESS CANNOT BE STOPPED.’ This is Turclub – proper name Tourist Club of the Mediterranean – the setting of Llorenç Villalonga’s hugely imaginative novel Andrea Víctrix, brought to us in English translation by P. Louise Johnson and Fum d’Estampa Press. Dystopian fiction at its very best, Andrea Víctrix opens the door to a new world that is as entertaining as it is horrifying – and bears more than a fleeting resemblance to our own.

Cover image Andrea Victrix

‘Beautiful, if disconcerting’ is how the narrator of Andrea Víctrix describes his experience on awakening from a ‘cryo cure’ in the year 2050. Having entered a frozen sleep aged around sixty in 1965, he has come back to life in the body of a thirty-year-old and found the world around him unrecognisable. The city that was once Palma de Mallorca has become Turclub, capital of pleasure in the new world order dictated by the US of Europe. After accidentally destroying one another with nuclear weapons, the USA and Russia have disappeared from the map, while an event ominously referred to as ‘the great fumigations of China’ seems to have made that region of the world equally uninhabitable. But no matter: ‘Europe was victorious and free of nightmares, and was the perfect synthesis of Marxism and capitalism’. Or at least that is how ministers like Andrea Víctrix, Director of Pleasure and later Economy, would have it. Unfortunately for our narrator, he sees things rather differently.

Andrea Víctrix opens at high speed, in a red Rolls Royce driven by Andrea, an ‘enchantingly, androgynously feminine’ figure with whom our narrator falls more or less instantly in love. This – falling in love – is just one of the many human actions forbidden in the new US of Europe, where babies are born in procreation centres and the concepts of family and romantic love are considered ‘pornography’. Even identifying as masculine or feminine is prohibited: when our narrator persists in referring to Andrea as a ‘she’, he is given a sound beating and thrown out of the vehicle. Androgyny is a central tenet of this new world, which would have ‘everyone in their rightful place’ – in other words, displaying as few individual differences as possible.

Gender and sexuality are just two of the many themes explored by Villalonga in this highly conceptual novel, which continues at the white-knuckle pace of the opening scene. Over the course of nearly 300 pages, the reader is heaped with information and a series of vivid impressions that mirror what the narrator must be feeling to have awakened in this strange new society. Not only are the streets awash with cars and adverts (the capitalist side of Turclub is especially virulent, with citizens required to purchase new refrigerators and vacuum cleaners every couple of months), but loudspeakers constantly chant slogans and the president of the US of Europe, the mysterious yet slightly ridiculous figure of Monsieur-Dame, appears on giant screens every evening to blow his subjects a goodnight kiss. It is the ultimate sensory overload, a totally exhausting experience, which, to his credit, Villalonga conveys powerfully to the reader.

Inspired in part by Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World – ‘It’s Huxley’s fault,’ gripes one of Villalonga’s characters at one point – Andrea Víctrix is a spirited criticism of rampant consumerism and technological progress, a warning about the consequences of climate change and our increasingly digitalised, self-centred ways of living. Though set firmly in the future, much of it mirrors the present, with certain touches more than recognisable – a loudspeaker blaring, ‘THE STATE OF UNIFIED EUROPE IS THE BEST STATE IN HISTORY,’ is more than a little uncomfortably Trumpian. It is astonishing, then, that Andrea Víctrix should have been published in Catalan in 1974, at a time in which the notion that ‘progress cannot be stopped’ was hopefully not yet as alarmingly strong as it is now.

It isn’t easy for dystopian fiction to retain its relevance, yet the ambitious scope and critical bent of Andrea Víctrix has ensured its success – and will doubtless keep it prescient for some time to come. Villalonga is a talented world builder and, though the majority of the characters aren’t necessarily likeable, the strong narrative voice and constant stream of absurd plot details conspire to make the reading experience rather compulsive. Another major boon is the English translation by P. Louise Johnson, which is incredibly fresh and accessible, making this into a dynamic, contemporary work of fiction. Even for those who don’t tend to read dystopian literature (and I willingly raise my hand at this point), Andrea Víctrix is an easy book in which to get lost.

Though it often feels like a bit of a romp across strange new frontiers – our narrator spends his time surrounded by an unusual cast of characters, including the androgynous Andrea, a high-class prostitute named Lola, various other ‘cryo survivors’, waiters who serve synthetic food while their maître d’s perform ballet poses, and a small flock of drug-addled Ibizan children – it often dips into more serious philosophising, which is perhaps what makes the publisher describe it as ‘part socio-political essay’. Though it definitely read like fiction to me, the lectures given by opponents of the regime and our narrator’s musings on social, environmental and economic issues all serve to give it a sombre edge that provides not just food for thought but a welcome respite from all that capering. There is a moral dynamic to the story, and Villalonga raises important questions about the rise and fall of dictatorships, confronting our tendency to wilfully ignore what is right in front of us. Many of the terrible aspects of unstoppable progress seem crystal clear to the narrator – and therefore the reader – yet are mutely accepted by Andrea and the citizens of Turclub for whom life has entirely different parameters. Though essentially anti-progress (or better said, anti unnatural progress), the narrator does in the end have to admit a certain degree of resignation: ‘My mistake,’ he muses, ‘was wanting to survive my time or overtake it.’ A cryo cure, we get the feeling, is perhaps not something any of us should be embarking on.

Relayed in pacey, atmospheric prose peppered with sharp wit, Andrea Víctrix is a vision of a future none of us is likely to want to experience. Part incisive social criticism, part wild flight of the imagination, Villalonga’s masterpiece is a complex and entertaining work of fiction that deserves both to inspire and terrify readers for many years to come.


Andrea Víctrix by Llorenç Villalonga, translated by P. Louise Johnson, is published in paperback by Fum d’Estampa Press. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.

‘A Pepsi and a bag of animal crackers’ [book review]

A review of Wars of the Interior by Joseph Zárate, translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott


‘A map is not an innocent drawing: it contains a political message,’ writes Joseph Zárate in Wars of the Interior, a highly charged and brave investigation of the under-reported conflicts playing out in the heartlands of Peru. The area – sometimes mountainous, sometimes lush with rainforest – is home to hundreds of indigenous communities but often unmapped, with the result that as nothing appears on official geographical documents, the land is ‘free’ to be plundered. It is from this part of the country, the interior, that the book takes its name, but also, as the author explains in his afterword, from ‘the mental and emotional space of human needs and desires’ – the interior of the self as an individual and, perhaps, of humankind as a whole. It is fitting, this title, as the book’s primary direction of movement seems to be forwards and inwards; slowly but steadily, it forces its way into the heart of uncomfortable questions, confronting us with inconvenient truths we know exist but would rather not see. It isn’t necessarily an easy read – but then, books of this magnitude rarely are.

Cover image Wars of the Interior

The three major ‘wars of the interior’ are (from Joseph Zárate’s perspective) caused by wood, gold and oil, Peru’s most valuable – and most dangerous – natural resources. According to the author, ‘in Peru, seven in ten social conflicts are caused by the exploitation of natural resources’, part of a widespread issue that has had devastating consequences for Latin America and, more widely still, the world in general. To those who read environmental and social reportage and attribute to themselves a certain degree of consciousness, a statistic like this might sound alarming, horrifying, rage-inducing – yet, in the end, it is just a number. That too much of our information about the world’s injustices is provided in the form of faceless statistics is part of the problem, a trend that Zárate’s book does its very best to counter.

Rather than looking at the big numbers – though he does occasionally, and to great effect – Zárate’s reporting focuses on individuals, beginning with one person before widening the net to include the community (or communities) in which they live. Thus we meet the late Edwin Chota, chief of an Asháninka community whose land and way of living are being destroyed by the timber industry; Máxima Acuña Atalaya, an extraordinarily courageous farmer from the mountainous region of Cajamarca, who is embroiled in a desperate fight to save her family’s land from a gold-mining corporation; and Osman Cuñachí, an eleven-year-old boy who is just one of many children to have waded into an oil-filled river on a potentially fatal clean-up operation necessitated by Petropéru, ‘the country’s most profitable state enterprise’. Though each story is different, they all have one thing in common: the overwhelming, terrifying helplessness of an individual facing a giant corporation.

Wars of the Interior is not a book designed to make its readers feel better. It does not offer solutions, nor any real cause for hope. (That Edwin Chota and Máxima Acuña Atalaya are particularly brave figures is undeniable, but the admiration we feel for their actions is quickly placed in context; these David and Goliath stories are rooted in reality and will not, we can tell, have a happy ending.) But while it might make for rather depressing reading, it is a book that deserves as wide an audience as possible – writing on similar subjects that ends with a sense of hope can be inspirational, but it is less likely to galvanise readers. While Wars of the Interior is thick with despair, it also contains a simmering anger and, though Zárate does not seem the kind of author to make this explicit, the sense that openly discussing these issues is perhaps the only chance we have of resolving them.

Part of this overarching emotional quality comes from the fact that Wars of the Interior is essentially three separate pieces of investigative journalism – Zárate has spent many years as a reporter, and this training shines through in his prose. None of the three sections is linked, and their tone also varies: the first, ‘Wood’, is considerably more journalistic, while ‘Gold’ and ‘Oil’ are more lyrical in style, as a result of which I found myself more invested in them. Though I committed to memory some shocking statistics about laundering wood – ‘thirty per cent of the wood sold worldwide is illegal’ – and the status of indigenous communities like the Asháninka in Peru, it was the final section, ‘Oil’, that made the most vivid impression.

Here, Zárate allows himself the use of more poetic imagery – Peru’s cross-country oil pipeline becomes ‘that metal boa constrictor with a tendency to shed its own blood’ – but it is the small, human details so intricately woven into the story that demonstrate his abilities not just as a reporter uncovering the facts, but also as a writer of literature. Osman Cuñachí, the young boy who came home from the river smeared in oil that has already impacted his health and may one day kill him, went into the water because Petropéru promised him 150 soles (roughly $46) – more than an adult could earn in a week from farming plantains. In the end, he was given just 2 soles, one of which he gave to his mother before using the second to buy ‘a Pepsi and a bag of animal crackers’. The words are simple enough, but the effect they have is heart-breaking. In this way, time and again, Zárate reminds us that we are dealing not with numbers, but with people – and in this case, a child. People who have needs and desires and ambitions, people who are killed on a daily basis by corporations and the so easily given ‘promise of prosperity for all’.

At the same time – importantly – Zárate calls the reader to account. Shortly after telling this story, he switches to a second-person perspective, describes how it feels ‘knowing that the people most interested in these tragedies are those who have never experienced them, who live in plastic-addicted cities, relieved not to be you’. There is a harsh truth in this, but one we must confront: it is all well and good to read and be shocked by this book, but if we truly want it to have an effect and not simply be a kind of voyeurism, we must then do something about it. Zárate doesn’t make it easy for us – he doesn’t suggest any actionable solutions – and so the reader is forced to face up not only to the truths exposed in these essays, but also the mirror held to our own behaviour. As a whole, the impact of this slender book is nothing short of devastating.

That we can read Wars of the Interior in English at all is thanks to the work of Annie McDermott, who has a rare sensitivity for translating distressing material – notably her rendering of Selva Almada’s Dead Girls – in such a way that the reader is captivated not only by the substance of the book, but also by the author’s voice. The rage felt by Zárate, which seems to careen between powerlessness and the desire to do something, is tangible in this book, leaving a lasting impression. And, in a broader context, it once again demonstrates the urgent need for translation, and more of it. Stories like these are vital – yet Zárate indicates one important caveat. Being interested is no longer enough; we must translate and read and absorb the message, but then we must act.


‘Frauen waschen Wäsche, und Männer fliegen Flugzeuge’ [book review]

A review of Freiflug (Flying Free) by Christine Drews


In 1974, a young German woman named Rita Maiburg applied for a job as a pilot with Lufthansa. She was fully qualified for the position, having paid for training and a license herself, and regularly flew private jets from Cologne–Bonn airfield. She was able, experienced and ambitious, but Lufthansa rejected her application. The reason they gave was as clear as it was simple: they did not employ women as pilots. Devastation and disbelief soon gave way to anger, and Rita Maiburg sued Lufthansa and the Federal Republic of Germany for discrimination. The case took two years to go through the courts and Rita eventually lost, but during the process she was offered a position by regional airline DLT – thus becoming the first female commercial airline pilot in the world. A little over a year later, she was killed in a car crash, at the age of twenty-five.

Cover image Freiflug

Rita Maiburg’s story is a true one, and the basis of a fascinating new novel by German author Christine Drews. As very little information can be found about Maiburg’s life beyond newspaper articles documenting the court case (the legal files were never archived) and a few biographical snippets, Drews has had free rein to fictionalise the majority of the story and thus balance it equally between Rita and her lawyer, Katharina Berner. (Though Rita really was represented by a female lawyer, little seems to be known about her as well.) The result is a strong, often shocking story about emancipation, ambition, gender (in)equality, and the struggle women still have to be seen and heard.

Freiflug is very much a character-led novel, and both Katharina and Rita are appealing figures with whom it is easy to identify and sympathise. Though Drews does shape social occasions and romantic relationships that give an insight into life in West Germany in the 1970s – Rita, the younger of the two, spends time with her former classmates who are making the most of the new wave of drugs coming from Afghanistan; Katharina, in her mid-thirties, embarks on a complex affair with a man who seems (and is) too good to be true – the narrative action focuses mainly on their careers, exploring female ambition and the struggle they both face to have their professional dreams realised. While Rita’s situation is the most overtly shocking (even when employed by DLT, her gender is kept a secret from the passengers), Katharina too must fight her family and colleagues to establish her own small law firm, and has to deal on a daily basis with prejudice – not to say harassment – in the workplace. In writing about both the obvious and less obvious signs of discrimination, Drews creates a forceful narrative that, unfortunately, maps all too neatly on to the experiences women have today.

The 1970s in West Germany are generally thought of as being pretty liberal, at least in comparison with what went before, so it was shocking – enraging, actually – to learn not just about Rita Maiburg but about the numerous other ways in which women were subjugated in society, work and the home. The prevailing attitude to women having careers, flatshares, ambitions and independence – doing anything other than marrying young and raising children – is epitomised by Katharina’s father and brother, members of a conservative, patriarchal family whose fortune has been made in laundry detergent. The small detail of the detergent is a smart move on the part of Drews, allowing for a whitewashing subtext, but also for lines such as the title of this review: ‘women wash clothes, and men fly planes’. That this kind of sentiment still finds echoes across the world today is the bitter taste left in the reader’s mouth once her irritation with these particular figures has died away.

While I enjoyed the modern parallels and admire the way in which Drews has shaped her story, at times the gender-inequality message was laid on a little too thickly for my liking. One of Katharina’s first clients is a woman who is routinely raped by her husband (marital rape wasn’t considered a crime in West Germany in the 1970s), a sub-storyline involves her older sister being forced to have an abortion in the 1940s before becoming trapped in a loveless marriage, and the subject of women’s mental health is gently probed but not quite satisfactorily explored. While it’s good to have a clear message – and reinforcing it with details that may surprise the audience is also no bad thing – balance is essential, and occasionally I felt I wasn’t being given enough credit as a reader. Even if some of these side stories had been dropped, I would have understood loud and clear what Drews is trying to tell us.

Beyond this plotting element, Freiflug is a realistic novel with a pleasingly strong sense of time and place. This is based on a strong body of research, as the author explains in her afterword: conversations with historians, research conducted in archives, plus advertisements, magazines and television programmes of the period. That she has been thorough in her exploration of the decade shines through, particularly when it comes to social and cultural details that are worked seamlessly into the narrative – the novel is vibrant and atmospheric, written in clear and accessible prose that brings characters and settings alive and makes it easy for the reader to become absorbed. It’s a long time since I visited either Cologne or Bonn; having read this novel, both feel a lot closer.

Based on a true story, populated by likeable characters, and offering a vivid portrait of 1970s West Germany, Freiflug is a compelling novel that manages to be both instructive and escapist – the kind of book I could easily imagine adapted for television. It can be tricky to base a novel on a true story, but Drews’ fine-tuned creativity has blended history with fiction to great effect.


Freiflug by Christine Drews is published by DuMont Verlag and currently available in German. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.

‘Is the government not humans like us?’ [book review]

A review of How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue


There is a question put by one of the main characters – a child – in Imbolo Mbue’s How Beautiful We Were:‘how would I have known that rivers were not ordinarily covered with oil and toxic waste?’ It is perhaps the central question of this heartfelt novel, which is in many ways a desperate plea for us to open our eyes and see things as they are – or soon could be. Because just as Thula and her friends understand rivers to be polluted, bodies of water that bring death rather than life to the villages they flow through, so too do many of us (most of Mbue’s readers, perhaps) imagine them as clear-flowing, health-giving natural features, the kind of thing we long to spend time beside rather than fearing. That one word can mean two so very different things – and that all too often we allow our understanding of the world to be coloured only by what we can see – is the tenet on which Mbue has founded her novel, the rallying cry with which she seeks to move her readers to change their behaviour.

Cover image How Beautiful We Were

Set in the fictional village of Kosawa, in an African country ruled by an inhumane dictator known only as His Excellency, How Beautiful We Were follows several generations living in the shadow of an oil strike. Having refused to leave their ancestral homes, the villagers’ lands are gradually being encroached on by Pexton, an American company that not only engages in nefarious practices but openly pollutes the surrounding earth, air and water. The novel opens in the 1980s with a tense community meeting: Pexton representatives are giving the villagers their usual empty reassurances when Konga, the ‘untouchable’ village madman, unexpectedly instigates a hostage-taking action that will have an untold impact on the entire population of Kosawa. Over the course of the novel, which is told from the perspectives of a group of village children and several members of a prominent family, we learn exactly what those consequences look like.

How Beautiful We Were spans forty years and, as such, Konga’s move leads to just about every outcome possible. Kosawa is afflicted by disease and massacre; receives visits from journalists, lawyers and reparations committees; sees one of its brightest children (Thula – the main character, if there can be said to be such a thing) sent off to study in America and return to lead a revolution; and buries many more residents, both adults and children. Despite the fact that the novel begins with the villagers taking matters into their own hands, attempting desperately to stop their children dying from poisoned air and water, the narrative is from the very beginning ‘drenched with an unrelenting, smothering form of despair’. Though at times we feel encouraged to cheer on various characters or celebrate the arrival of apparently sympathetic outside forces, Mbue is careful not to let us get too comfortable. Things, we sense, will not turn out all right.

Perhaps it was for this reason that I found this novel slightly hard to get on with, despite the fact that I admired the premise greatly and find Mbue to be an accomplished storyteller. From the start the novel is incredibly atmospheric, and it is the cultural and social details that make Kosawa come alive as a place: the healer twins who are born and die holding hands, the umbilical cord bundles that are the most treasured possession of each family. Yet for all the apparent joy Mbue has taken in creating this world for us, something about How Beautiful We Were fell a bit flat. The sense of despair is at times crushing – and unrelenting; in one of the later chapters, the stoic Thula’s younger brother Juba reveals himself to be just as money-grubbing as the civil servants we have by this time been taught to despise – and the catalogue of woes often overwhelming. Environmental pollution and child mortality are strong subjects, and Mbue places an additional focus on the subjugation of women. A very brief diversion into a story of child abuse, then, had the unfortunate effect of becoming almost too much, diluting not only itself but the rest of the narrative around it.

Another element of the novel that makes it hard to really get a hold on is the continually changing narrative perspective. While I usually enjoy alternating points of view, and am happy to cope with several, Mbue never revisits a character except for the collectively narrated chapters entitled ‘The Children’. Though this continual disengagement is surprisingly unjarring in a narrative sense – the plot is roughly linear, and the same slightly dreamy tone adopted by all the narrators – it did leave me feeling a faint sense of dissatisfaction, as though I had never managed to get under the skin of the novel. Though I felt deeply sympathetic towards the villagers of Kosawa and their plight, I never found myself truly caring for any of the characters.

I have my suspicions that Mbue has written intentionally this way. How Beautiful We Were reads a lot like a fairy tale – the original dark ones, in which children die unaccountably and good does not win out over evil – and the reserved, slightly arch prose style seems designed to keep the reader somehow at arm’s length. It is perhaps a warning: this story is not true, but an allegory; Kosawa not a real place, but the stand-in for countless villages across the world. We, the readers, are perhaps being lumped in with the Pexton representatives, people who tend to view bad things as just a story, a set of unfortunate events that is bound eventually to result in a happy ending. Perhaps this is what Mbue is driving towards; perhaps it is not. But whatever her intention, the novel certainly left me thinking – and this, certainly, is the best thing it could have done.

How Beautiful We Were is not dystopian ‘cli-fi’, but a narrative rooted in a very real world. For all its shortcomings, it is a bold and imaginative story that holds its readers firmly to account. In letting us in to the village of Kosawa, whose inhabitants may be fictional but who still love, dream and hurt in the same way as we do, it draws our attention towards the mistakes of the past and present, asking not if, but when we plan to do something about them.


This week I also had the pleasure of writing about translator Polly Barton’s extraordinary memoir, Fifty Sounds. Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions next week, it’s a beautiful meditation on life, love and language as identity that resonated on so many levels. My review for Lunate can be found here.

The Monthly Booking: April 2021

Books to read in April 2021
The Monthly Booking reading list for April 2021

It’s April, the sun is shining, and many more books are making their way on to my shelves. This is mainly the fault of the International Booker Prize, the longlist for which was released a couple of days ago (if you missed it, you’ll find all the titles here).

While I was pleased to see some fantastic books such as Elisabeth Jaquette’s translation of Minor Detail by Adania Shibli and In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, translated by Sasha Dugdale, make the list, it’s also full of surprises – or should I say, books I haven’t read yet. Though I tend not to make my way religiously through prize lists, more than a few of these titles have caught my eye, so I’ll be trying to get my hands on them over the next while.

Before all that, though, a list of books grouped loosely around a theme: April is devoted to the environment, at least where my reading is concerned. While we’re definitely seeing the rise of ‘climate fiction’, the books I’ve opted for this month are less dystopian, more focused on the world we live in today. They cover destruction in the Amazon rainforest, the lives of migratory birds, and how what we eat can change the planet – for better or for worse.

My German choice is, as usual, not really connected to the theme, but does at least centre on a young girl who spends her summer holidays picking camomile flowers. I’m very behind on my German reviews but have decided to go ahead and add this novel to the list, as it’s now been looking at me from my unread shelf for well over a year. And with new books potentially coming in – well, I need the space.

And so, without further ado, my environmental reading list for April is as follows:

Fiction

Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy (Flatiron Books)

What the publisher says: ‘Franny Stone has always been the kind of woman who is able to love but unable to stay. Leaving behind everything but her research gear, she arrives in Greenland with a singular purpose: to follow the last Arctic terns in the world on what might be their final migration to Antarctica. Franny talks her way onto a fishing boat, and she and the crew set sail, traveling ever further from shore and safety. But as Franny’s history begins to unspool – a passionate love affair, an absent family, a devastating crime – it becomes clear that she is chasing more than just the birds. When Franny’s dark secrets catch up with her, how much is she willing to risk for one more chance at redemption? Epic and intimate, heartbreaking and galvanizing, Charlotte McConaghy’s Migrations is an ode to a disappearing world and a breathtaking page-turner about the possibility of hope against all odds.’

Non-fiction

We Are the Weather by Jonathan Safran Foer (Penguin)

What the publisher says: ‘It is all too easy to feel paralysed and hopeless in the face of climate crisis, but the truth is that every one of us has the power to change history’s course. We have done it before: making collective sacrifices to protect our freedoms, our families, our way of life. And we can do it again. In this extraordinarily powerful and deeply personal book, Jonathan Safran Foer lays bare the battle to save the planet. Calling each one of us to action, he answers the most urgent question of all: what will it take for things to change? It all starts with what we eat for breakfast.’

Translation

Wars of the Interior by Joseph Zárate, translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott (Granta)

What the publisher says: ‘When you fill up your car, install your furniture or choose a wedding ring, do you ever consider the human cost of your consumables? [ . . . ] Joseph Zárate’s stunning work of documentary takes three of Peru’s most precious resources – gold, wood and oil – and exposes the tragedy, violence and corruption tangled up in their extraction. But he also draws us in to the rich, surprising world of Peru’s indigenous communities, of local heroes and singular activists, of ancient customs and passionate young environmentalists. Wars of the Interior is a deep insight into the cultures alive in the vanishing Amazon, and a forceful, shocking exposé of the industries destroying this land.’

Independent Publisher

How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue (Canongate Books)

What the publisher says: ‘Set in the fictional African village of Kosawa, How Beautiful We Were tells the story of a people living in fear amidst environmental degradation wrought by an American oil company. Pipeline spills have rendered farmlands infertile. Children are dying from drinking toxic water. Promises of clean-up and financial reparations are made – and ignored. The country’s government, led by a brazen dictator, exists to serve its own interest only. Left with few choices, the people of Kosawa decide to fight back. But their fight will come at a steep price . . . one which generation after generation will have to pay.’

German

7 Kilo Zeit by Rumjana Zacharieva (Horlemann)

What the publisher says: ‘Summer 1962, in a Bulgarian village. Twelve-year-old Mila needs to pick seven kilograms of camomile for the village cooperative in order to get her schoolbooks for the coming year. She’s also supposed to work her way through a reading list of twenty-two books and practise her handwriting every day. But Mila would rather flick through forbidden titles from the grown-ups’ shelves and dream of dying a heroine’s death as a freedom fighter in the Cold War. And then there’s the mysterious history of her parents, her grandparents and the whole village to investigate . . .’


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