Lessons by Ian McEwan

It’s going to be difficult to talk about this book, Lessons (2022) without giving away too much of the plot; no spoilers. I’ll try.

The story is about Roland Baines and with a title of Lessons, it’s appropriate that it begins with a lesson: a piano lesson, but this one has lifelong repercussions.

The story isn’t linear but it progresses like a complex cable-knit from that piano lesson when he was 14 years old right into his early 70s.

The writing is dense and not conducive to the one and a half page read in bed before you go to sleep. This book demands your time and attention. It’s also a bit of a history lesson as world events impinge on Roland’s life from the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, through the fall of the Berlin Wall 1989 to the lockdowns of the 2020 pandemic. Roland was born in 1948, a real Baby Boomer, but only a few years before me; there’s little bits of my history that match Roland’s and those little bits are mainly reflected in his mistakes. It’s Roland’s mistakes – or, if you like, the lessons he didn’t learn – that lay down the path of Roland’s life.

For readers of Roland’s age you too will, I predict, see little bits of your own history as we all can’t be immune to the world and what goes on in it.

Roland’s life, in its teenage beginnings, has enormous potential as a pianist, a tennis player, and as a writer. What he does with that potential and how those choices affect him and those around him make up the spine of the story.

There is, of course, the piano teacher, Miriam, then his first wife Alissa and her German family, his only child, Lawrence, his second wife, Daphne, and an unknown brother, Robert, are all dragged along by the history around them; some do well, others do not.

After his trite little book, Nutshell (2016), which I thought was way below par, so much so that I didn’t bother with his next one, Machines Like Me (2019) Lessons is a return to the classic standard of his Enduring Love (1997), Atonement (2001), Saturday (2005), and The Children Act (2014). It’s not a return to his early work which was full of darkness and the macabre, but it’s a mature and serious work that delves into what it really takes for a person to fulfil their dreams and how easy it is for those dreams to turn to smoke.

The complexities if its timeline annoyed me a little in the first third, but there is a rhythm there you need to tap into but once you do the book rollicks along to its conclusion; well it did for this reader, anyway. I loved it! (But, please, make time for it and attend to it wholeheartedly)

Lessons is his most autobiographical work, about a quarter he says, and you can hear him talking about the book and his writing life here, in a short but fascinating video from the CBS Sunday Morning program.

You can purchase the book in various formats here.

Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout

American author, Elizabeth Strout

I’m not sure why, yet, but I don’t have a lot of American writers on my shelf and in my line of interest. However, Elizabeth Strout has been there on my literary horizon ever since I saw the film version of her novel Olive Kitteridge (2008) starring the magnificent Francis McDermott. And I’m not sure how but the sequel, Olive Again (2019) is in my pile of books on my bedside table. Then my sister, an avid reader, praised Strout’s Oh William! (2021) – shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize – and a visiting friend left me this one, Lucy by the Sea (2022) when she returned home. I read it.

It’s my first pandemic novel. By that I mean it’s the first novel I’ve read that, to some degree, is about the pandemic. Lucy, and her ex-husband, William, leave New York and set up a home in a small house on the Maine coast. He was worried about her and wanted to get her away from the danger.

It’s written in the first person and it reads like a journal. Lucy shares her inner feelings and expectations, usually unfulfilled, along with what she did, who she met, and what she said. It wasn’t long before I realised that she isn’t a very easy woman. I always admire a writer who can create an unlovely character through a 1st person narrative. (The last time I experienced this was in Tim Winton’s Breath (2008)) However, she is self-reflective and so knows not to voice her dislikes too much. She dislikes most things. But she likes Bob, a near neighbour, but not his wife, Margaret. She certainly dislikes the house William has brought her to, the weather, most of the furniture, the grey light, and the loneliness. Lucy’s life is her family: two daughters, their husbands, one she likes, one she doesn’t, William, of course, her ex, and her late second husband, David, whom she misses dreadfully. William also has an ex-wife – she left him taking their daughter – and a half-sister he’s only just met. Needless to say Lucy’s family world is complicated.

Lucy is also surprisingly unaware of the seriousness of the pandemic, even when friends and New York neighbours die because of it. She feels displaced, uneasy, and wonders when she can return to her New York apartment. Set against this general feeling of displacement is the narrative of the events around her and her family told in very plain, uncluttered, and conversational language.

It’s a soft book, and a handsome volume.

By the end she is slightly more aware and accepting of her situation even though her life has changed dramatically.

Strout has written about these characters before in My Name is Lucy Barton (2016), and Oh William! of course; even Olive Kitteridge makes a small appearance in this one.

I enjoyed it, yes, but the interest is solely due to the character of Lucy: how will she deal with hardship, what will she say to her daughter who is mad at her, and what will she do with William after she’s put her nightie back on?

You can buy the ebook or hardback version here.

Here is an interview with Elizabeth Strout about Lucy by the Sea, if you can manage to forgive the rather verbose interviewer.

Young Mungo by Douglas Stewart

Scottish – American writer Douglas Stuart

After I’d finished reading Shuggie Bain, Stuart’s Booker Prize winning novel from 2020, I imagined his second novel might be ‘Shuggie Bain grows up and falls in love.’ That’s exactly what Young Mungo (2022) is like, and what the rather audacious cover photo fortells. There is the same Scottish estate bleakness, an older brother, Hamish, this time one not so accommodating, and, of course, a child-like drug-addled and flirtatious girl-mother who doesn’t want to be one, a mother, that is. The characters are all different but to some degree similar. But, here there is also a sister, Jodie, desperate to get to university and not only away from her childhood and family but also away, far away, from ending up like her mother and the deathknell to any girl in her position is getting pregnant. That would seal her fate, as it did the fate of most girls her age and that of the mother, Mo-Maw – she hates being called Ma.

Writing a similar second novel to an extremely successful first is a sure way to consolidate a writer’s reader base. Hanna Kent did it very successfully with her second novel The Good People (2016) after her debut hit, Burial Rites (2013).

Stuart’s central character, Mungo Hamilton, is a nineteen year old Protestant lad and a victim of his mother’s inexpert, and downright malicious, mothering style. To counter Mungo’s un-masculine behaviour she packs him off with two very unsavoury men to ‘make a man of him’. This narrative thread is juxtaposed with the events that lead up to this ‘camping’ trip: namely his home life with his absent mother and violent brother which sees him attach himself to a young Catholic man, and pigeon fancier, James. This friendship staggers into a clumsy but charming romantic friendship that overwhelms both of them and sets them adrift from their families and society.

Although the camping trip to a Scottish loch is certainly a coming-of-age experience its double-climax is nothing that anyone, including this reader – and the writer, I’m guessing – ever expected. When these two narrative streams finally converge both James and Mungo, both battered and bruised, stare at each other across a busy road and dare to dream about a life together, even though us readers know Mungo’s future is most probably battered beyond salvation. I suspect we may hear more about young Mungo.

Young Mungo has the assured hand of a writer steeped in his Scottish background, and like Shuggie Bain, his handling of the Scottish accent, written phonetically, is the main driving force in painting the characters so vividly. This ‘reading’ of the phonetic dialogue is worth practicing. It doesn’t take long to master it, and it gives so much weight to the characters and the tone of the book. Give it a try.

Yes, like its predecessor, Young Mungo is harrowing at times especially with its depiction of what lengths families will go to keep their own in check. Selfishness is rife; love has nothing to do with it. If such writing upsets you it can’t be denied that your strong reaction to the contents or the characters, be it revulsion or annoyance, is solely due to the strength of the writing. Good writing elicits strong reactions, even negative ones.

Douglas Stuart is going to be a major player in the literary landscape for a very long time.

In this short video Douglas Stuart introduces Young Mungo shortly before it was released.

And here, you can follow Stuart talking about writing in general and his personal take on it. It’s mainly about what made him write in the first place, and therefore is more about Shuggie Bain, but those thoughts and ideas are also relevant to Young Mungo; about truth in fiction and how fiction comes from a very mysterious place.

The Boat by Nam Le

Vietnamese-Australian writer, Nam Le

The thing is not to write what no one else could have written, but to write what only you could have written.

When this book came out in 2008 the Australian literary scene lit up! The collection of longish short stories heralded a major new writer of extraordinary scope and skill. He was 27.

The first story, Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice is as one would expect. The narrator, Nam, a Vietnamese Australian living in the US and studying writing at the Iowa Writers Centre is hosting his father, a Vietnamese war veteran whose relationship with his son has been fractious. It is now better but still not grounded and never easy. References to the other stories in this collection make this first story work like a preface to the book itself. When Nam, then a lawyer, told his father that he was quitting his job in Melbourne to go to Iowa to become a writer his father said ‘The captive buffalo hates the free buffalo.’ He was prone to talk in proverbs.


His description of peak-hour traffic: it’s rinse of noise.
His smile was as stiff as his suit.
… their amusement, coughing it around their circle like a wet scrap.


The second story, Cartagena, is set in Colombia and is very unexpected. It knocks your socks off!
The syntax is simple, no contractions, the occasional use of favela Spanish, restricted punctuation – no quotation marks, and a recurring misuse of a verb: ‘Luis, who had the same age,” makes it sound like a mistranslation. All these grammar tricks conspire to give veracity to this 1st person narrative. It feels authentic, belying the fact that the author is not a young Colombian thug, but a young Vietnamese Australian. The narrator is Juan Pablo, fourteen and a half years old, a sicario – hitman – who has been obedient, a faithful soldado and loyal to his agent, El Padre, except recently. He did not make his last hit. He said he could not find him. He lied to his agent whom he has never met. The hit is his best friend, Hernando. Juan Pablo is in deadly trouble. He knows this because he has been summoned. Everyone knows this can only mean one thing. No spoilers here but, well, a devastating climax. It was this story that was scorched in my brain from my first reading over a decade ago.


And then comes Meeting Elise. A completely different tone, more traditional grammar and another 1st person narrative: a middle aged artist whom women leave and who’s having trouble with hemorrhoids and colon polyps. He fucks things up by talking too much, mostly the truth, he reckons – too much verbiage, too much booze. He’s getting ready to meet his long lost 18 year old daughter, a musician, whom he hasn’t seen for 17 years. He’s exhilarated but scared, sorry but expectant. It all sounds like the work of a different writer.


Halflead High
This story is a 3rd person coming of age; a coastal high school student full of raging hormones, adult disappointments, and life getting in the way; an ill mother, high school jealousies, loves, lusts, and betrayals. It’s touching, recognisable, and insightful. 


His mother was dying and seemed torn between ignoring it and rushing towards it.


It’s lines like this, and those above, that for me cements a writer’s worth. Something clicks in the reader – it did with me – simply stated but describes an unrecognised truth made manifest in a line like that.

Story No. 5 is a 1st person narrative: this time a young Japanese girl in an evacuation centre sleeping “four mats away from the radio”. She and all the other children scrub the wooden floors of the temple till they shine and press their hands together for the glorious Imperial Forces who fought the reviled enemy China and now the cowardly enemy, America. Soybean rice with mugwort grass is better than pounded rice cakes. Do without until victory.  Honorable death before surrender. It’s the last days of the war. The text is dense, no delineated dialogue, just a stream of consciousness from a little girl. Short, plain sentences. Present tense. Subjects jump around: scrubbing floors, running during exercise, Big Sister, Mother covered in dust, rice soup, Imperial heros, the wind, the loud warnings, Big Brother who has gone to Confidential Place, sore knees, the sounds of  B24s, or is that a B27? cicadas, hunger. The rabbity mind of a little girl, named Little Turnip. The title, Hiroshima, is ominous.


The 6th story is the least successful; Tehran Calling follows a young American woman travelling to Iran to see her old university friend only to be caught up in youth unrest, Iranian hypocrisy, and self-deception. However, the syntax and form is different from each of the other stories. It’s as if Le is searching for his voice, his tone, his style, the work he feels most comfortable with. But astoundingly each story has a style that is different but authentic, authorial, with weight and verisimilitude.

Style is everything. Style is eye, window, and view. And, of course, when it serves its purpose, style is beside the point, is rightly subsumed by subjectivity and subject. Perhaps the handiest definition of literature is language where style and subject are inseparable. (2021) He certainly proves it.

‘Why do you write about Colombians, Japanese, and Iranian girls? What about us!” says his father in the first story. So he does.

The last and title story, The Boat; I was forced to schedule daytime reading time for it. Reading it before sleep was impossible. The opening scene of the view from the crowded bilges of an unstable refugee boat on the very high seas is terrifying. In appalling, almost unimaginable conditions where bodily functions are just part of the boat’s geography. Drinking water is rare and hallowed; human relationships based on nothing but instincts. A little boy obsessed with counting heads after every splash overboard. A little boy, like an old man squeezed within a skeletal frame.

It was a face dead of surprise. 

The range, skill, and boldness of these stories is breathtaking. Seventeen years ago a novel was eagerly anticipated as if short stories weren’t somehow good enough. How stupid is that? If Le writes nothing ever again what he has written here will cement his name in Australian literature as a voice to be honoured. Along with Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, every Aussie home needs this book on their shelf.

Here you can watch Nam Le reading a short excerpt from the 1st story.

And here you can hear Nam le talk intimately about writing and why he does it.

You can buy the book is various formats here.

Amongst Women by John McGahern

Irish writer John McGahern (1934 – 2006)

And so continues my love-affair with Irish fiction.

“John McGahern is the Irish novelist everyone should read”, says Colm Tóibín and, considered by some as, arguably the most important Irish novelist since Samuel Beckett. I’m a little bashful to then admit this is the first McGahern work I have read; it won’t be my last.

McGahern’s work has universally been praised. I often think to myself when I hear or read comments about ‘good writing’; so that is good writing, yes, I can see that, but what makes it good?

Recently, I was contacted by a British writer who wanted me to review her recently finished novel. I assume she had come across this very blog where she obtained my contact details. If I agreed to her request she would send me her eBook free of charge. I did; she did. She had created a publishing house in order to publish and promote her work which I thought was very entrepreneurial of her. I began reading with rosy expectation. It began with a Prologue which I read. I read it again. I then wrote to her to apologise but I was not the reader she was searching for and that I would not be reading the rest. I was polite and blamed myself for my lack of understanding and appreciation.

I had just began reading Amongst Women (1991) and hurried back to it.

What makes writing good is an economy of language: clear and apt sentences of time and place; plain words, character-building skills via close writing1 with evocative dialogue; and the necessary understanding of the importance of the narrative voice. Oh, and a deep understanding and interest in human nature. Of course, grammar and syntax are also important but secondarily so.

John McGahern’s Amongst Women is an example of good writing.

Out of the many false starts her life had made she felt they were witnessing this pure beginning that she would seize and make true. No longer, exposed and vulnerable, would she have to chase and harry after happiness.

You could not successfully trim even one word, nor would you need to add another.

Michael Moran, based largely on McGahern’s own father, is an aging Irish farmer from the north west. He has five children: three daughters, Mona, Shiela, and Maggie – and two sons, the estranged eldest, Luke, and the youngest, Michael, still at school. This is a story about a strict father confident in his position as the head of the house and a God-fearing Catholic. The latter underpins and authorises the former. He is a tyrant, grumpy one minute, then playful, then grumpy again. His women both love and fear him. Words of love and understanding are rare. As a widower he marries a woman, Rose, visiting from Scotland. She succumbed to his handsomeness and learns to tolerate his moods. She, in fact, becomes like another daughter. Moran among his four women.

Irish Catholic rural life, and its decline, at a time of great change, women’s emancipation, the authority of the Church, and the practical considerations church-goers have to make to get on with their lives; these are the themes expertly depicted. There is no narrative curve, no climax, just the rhythms of family life; a McGahern specialty. It is his most famous and best loved work.

Amongst Women was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won The Irish Times/Aer Lingus Literary Award (1991). It was adapted for television in 1998 and won Best Television Drama at the Irish Film and Television Awards.

All the episodes of the television series can be found on YouTube. Simply search for Amongst Women.

Here is an interview with John McGahern presented by The Howard Poetry and Literary Society of Columbia Maryland, USA in 1993.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

  1. Close writing (or free indirect discourse) describes a special type of third-person narration that slips in and out of characters’ consciousness. In other words, characters’ thoughts, feelings, and words are filtered through the third-person narrator into the narrative style. The opening few lines of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) by James Joyce is a grand and famous example of close writing.

Mother’s Boy by Patrick Gale

British writer Patrick Gale lives in Cornwall

Patrick Gale is a very busy man. He is a cellist, lives in Cornwall and plays in a local string quartet, a keen gardener, artistic director of the North Cornwall Book Festival and a Patron of The Causley Trust. Oh, and, of course, a best selling novelist. Mother’s Boy is his 17th novel released in March 2022. He may be British, but he is also most definitely Cornish. Who else then to novelise the early life of another Cornish hero, the poet Charles Causley.

This is a mother-son story; Gale is particularly good with mothers.

Laura is in service when she meets Charlie Causley, also in service to the local doctor. He is a dashing lad and their romance is brief but strong. All is set for a happy married life together, but WW1 takes him away and returns him a broken man; his life is cut short leaving Laura a single mum with a baby to keep. She takes in laundry, the wine stained alter cloths of St Thomas’s church as well as the other-stained bed linen from the local ‘boarding’ house where the proprietress’s children, Aggie’s brood, all look surprisingly different. A stain is a stain to Laura Causley and each deserves her expert attention.

Charles grows into a concave-chested studious little boy, more at ease with a book than a ball. As a teenager he plays the piano in several dance bands, writes and directs plays, and occasionally takes girls to the pictures and shakes their hands good-night. Laura may be a little disappointed in her son but would never show it. A boy is a boy to Laura Causley and each deserves a mother’s love and protection.

The book is a gentle read; Gale is a master of wry observations while plunging into serious emotional depths. It is as much about Laura Causley as her son, Charles. Gales evocation of a mother’s love is particularly moving:

He had woken already and was straining to look about him. Seeing her approach, he cried out with something like a laugh and reached a hand towards her. She kissed his tiny palm, then scooped him up, furling him in her shawl to hold him against her shoulder where he sucked noisily at her neck. She rocked gently from foot to foot, loving the warm weight of him against her. ‘You,’ she said. ‘Oh, you.’

Another major theme is forbidden sexuality. We first become aware of it when Charles lets his best friend Ginger inveigle them up to Charles’s room where Ginger …

persuaded him to hold him close to demonstrate the steps of the foxtrot and then had taken advantage of the moment to kiss him full on the lips while doing things with his tongue Charles was fairly sure never happened on screen to Claudette Colbert.

But later Ginger takes Charles to the nudist section, men only, of the Plymouth Lido and disappeared for a time only to be seen later exiting a single change room only moments after a big half dressed man had emerged, who then finished dressing, and left. While walking home …

‘You do know,’ Charles wanted to tell him, ‘that what you were doing, or what I suspect you were doing, could have you up in the courts in Bodmin and wreck your prospects, even send you to prison?’ But he said nothing about it because what he longed to do was ask questions instead, and he knew the answers Ginger might give would change the dynamic of their friendship for ever in ways for which he wasn’t ready.

The Second World War sees Charles called up. He was too slight and weak-eyed for active duty so trained as a coder: sending and receiving coded messages usually on board ship but never-ending seasickness had him transferred to land: Gibraltar, and Malta. It was in the Navy that he experienced his sexuality, one relationship slightly abusive, another almost loving. But outside the flimsy protection of a male dominated existence such indulgences could not be contemplated. This is the tragedy that happened to thousands of homosexuals over thousands of years: their man-made social environment precluding their natural natures; in some parts of the world it continues still.

I was a little disappointed that a writer writing about a writer didn’t spend a little more time investigating writing itself, but this is a minor and picky response to an otherwise very enjoyable and evocative read.

Here you can purchase the book in various formats.

Charles Stanley Causley,
(1917 – 2003) British poet, teacher, and writer.

Here you can find a short biography of Causley and a short essay on the poet by fellow poet and author, Kevin Crossley-Holland.

And here you can watch a trailer for the Boatshed Films’ Cornwall Native Poet, Charles Causley which as screened on BBC 4 in 2017 to celebrate the centenary of Causley’s birth.

Short Cuts by Raymond Carver

American short story writer, Raymond Carver,
1938 – 1988

One of the enemies of sleep is an overactive brain, which is why there are many pieces of advice that all aspire to getting a light-sleeper ready for sleep: listening to your own breathing, concentrating on a mantra, counting sheep, or reading a book; give the brain one thing to do, and not let it buzz around thirty eight.

I’m reading Hanya Yanagihara’s latest, and third novel, To Paradise, but I’m reading an ebook edition on my tablet and since modern medical advice is that reading on an electronic device before sleep is not a good idea – it tends to inhibit sleep, not encourage it – I usually have a paper book by my bed for those many minutes of bedtime reading.

Note! I’m not at all advocating choosing a dull read for bed-time reading; not a book to put you to sleep but one to prepare you for sleep.

Short stories are good. Raymond Carver’s short story collection, Short Cuts (1993), has been my recent and decent bedtime read.

The famed American filmmaker, Robert Altman, praised Carver for capturing “the wonderful idiosyncrasies of human behaviour … that exist amid the randomness of life’s experiences.” That paints a very general picture of what Carver wrote about; what he mainly wrote about was far more specific.

Carver was born and lived in the American North West and as a young married man – he was married and the father of two while still in his teens – he worked odd jobs, from picking tulips to sweeping floors to managing an apartment building. He knew all about unplanned responsibilities, the threat of unsatisfying work and unemployment and the mysterious chicanery of personal relationships. This is the stuff of Carver’s characters. They are lorry drivers, traveling salesmen, waitresses, the badly educated, disillusioned, the down-and-almost-out, alcoholics, quickly bored, easily distracted, and equally likely to be the betrayed as the betrayer. Their lives are beyond their control and since God has everything to do with it they don’t blame him since he doesn’t seem to care, but anyway, that’s okay because they aren’t that far away from believing they deserve everything they get.

Carver’s stories are usually cautionary tales, highlighting casual moments as the causes of distrust, treachery, and the erosion of tenuous human standards. His characters and situations may be dark and seemingly mundane but they contain a wealth of understanding and insight into the human condition and are told in bold and sparse prose.

Most fiction is told through an omnipotent unnamed third-person narrator who knows everyone’s, and the world’s, past, present and future; they know what everyone is thinking, needing, and planning and tells the reader what they say and do and what they think and want. Carver’s third-person narrators aren’t that powerful. His third person narrators have the same power as everyone else: they just report what is said and done, like his first person narrators. What the characters may be thinking at any one moment is either of no consequence or completely incomprehensible.

His writing is reader-focused: you fill in the gaps, the spaces for psychological insight that each reader brings to such texts which makes these stories so personal and endearing.

Short stories are not the most popular form of fiction but writers who do them well, Anton Chekov, Alice Munro, Katherine Mansfield, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, W Somerset Maugham, James Joyce, Nam Lee, and Raymond Carver do them very well indeed.

These nine stories and one poem that make up this volume were the inspiration for Robert Altman’s multi-award winning film Short Cuts released in 1993.

Here is a feature-length documentary on Altman, the making of Short Cuts, the movie, and his reverence of the work of Raymond Carver.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

Winifred Falls

A recent short story, part of the collection Social Distancing & Other Stories available here

‘So where are ya off to today?’ Jennifer asked. Marian’s next-door neighbour was sitting in her usual place, on her porch. She dropped her right hand out of sight; Marian did not approve of smoking.

Marian was a stylish woman. She dressed and groomed herself immaculately, not in the latest fashion, which had gone off the rails as far as she was concerned, but in a style, a rather expensive style, suitable for her age. She was proud of the way she looked. Today she wore a pale blue summer blouse with a blue and grey tartan skirt. At her front door she had looked at herself in the full length mirror, turning this way, then that. Fine. She had walked out of her front door to wait for the car.

‘Elsbeth and Mal are taking Mia and me on a picnic.’

‘A picnic!’

‘Yes. Is that so strange?’

‘Have ya ever been on a picnic?’

‘Of course.’

‘Dressed like that!’

‘Of course not. Don’t be silly. I think I was thirteen when I last went on a picnic. Why? What’s wrong with how I’m dressed?’

‘Well, first of all, Luv, those shoes! You can’t wear heels on a picnic.’

‘Why not?’

‘Luv, you’ll be walking through grass and stuff. You’ll sink in. Don’t ya have a pair of nice flatties?’

‘But then I will have to change my dress.’

‘And that too. Won’t ya be sitting on the grass?’

‘Why ever for?’

‘That’s what ya do at a picnic.’

‘Oh, I don’t think so. We’ll be on one of those wooden outdoor settings. The ones with the seats attached and supported on a slab of cement, installed and maintained by the local council.’

‘But ya still have to get to the thing. What about those beige trousers I’ve seen you wear?’

‘My gardening clothes!’

‘Well Luv, you’ll be far more comfortable in a pair of trousers, I reckon.’

Marian always thought of Jennifer as over friendly, but the kind of over friendly that could be construed as common. ‘I’ll be fine. Mia likes to see her Grandmother looking smart.’

‘Suit ya self Luv. How’s Mia’s leg?’

‘Oh, Jennifer, you keep mentioning that. That was ages ago.’

‘Was it?’

‘Yes. She’s almost ten now and not so clumsy. Quite the little lady.’

‘Jeeze she made me laugh!’

‘I’ve never seen the need for humour at someone else’s expense.’ Marian would’ve chided herself if she had been aware of the corners of her mouth sliding down in hoity disapproval.

‘Oh, I know. It’s just that when someone is being so serious like and then falls on their mush, it just cracks me up. I can’t help it. I’ve always been a sucker for a banana skin.’

Neighbourliness sometimes forced Marian to invite her neighbour into her apartment, although she would always try to arrange things so that it was Jennifer’s they chatted in, but when it was her place she would always, once Jennifer had left, use a soft disinfecting cloth to wipe down everything Jennifer came in contact with especially if she had used the bathroom. Marian knew it was snobbish but that wasn’t a problem as long as other people didn’t see or hear it.

The little round table and two chairs that sat on all the little verandahs in the line of self-contained units came with each unit. They were identical; Marian thought that was a pity. On Marian’s table was a pretty blue and white ceramic pot on a matching saucer, containing a large blooming red gerbera; on Jennifer’s there was a black plastic pot full of dirt.

‘Ah! Here they are!’ Marian exclaimed as Elsbeth, Jamal, and Mia pulled up in their car. ‘Bye Jennifer!’

‘Bye Luv!’ She waved at the car.

Marian walked down her little path past her neat beds of carnations – she had a lovely crop this summer – well aware of her tartan skirt swishing as she went. All women need to know exactly what their skirt is doing at any given moment, she liked to think.

‘She looks like she’s going to a party, not a picnic,’ Jamal said quietly behind the wheel. Elsbeth smiled at her husband.

Marian stopped at the car’s back door and waited for Mia to open it for her. ‘Morning darling, Mal, and you, you pretty thing!’ she cooed, smoothing her skirt under her as she sat.

‘Morning Grandma! Morning Marian! Good Morning Mum!’ they all chorused.

‘You must always open a door for a lady, Mia,’ Marian chided kindly.

‘Sorry Grandma.’

‘Aren’t you a little over-dressed for a picnic, Mum?’ Elsbeth said as kindly as she could manage.

‘Oh, you know me, Elsbeth. Doesn’t she, Mia,’ and she tapped Mia on the nose. Mia smiled. Elsbeth and Jamal shared a look. ‘So where are we off to today?’

‘To a pretty little spot on the banks of a creek in the Royal National Park, Winifred Falls,’ Jamal said as he maneuvered out of the drive-way and into the traffic.

‘Oh! Is it maintained by the council?’

‘I suppose so,’ Jamal said.

‘Didn’t you check?’

‘It’s where Jamal took me for our first date,’ Elsbeth said.

‘We want to show Mia.’

Oh, so I’m just along for the ride, am I? ‘How sweet,’ she said. ‘Look at all this traffic!’ She commented on the traffic five times before they got to the park turn off. ‘I thought your first date was to see that film, you know, something about chocolate.’

‘That was Chocolat,’ Jamal said realising too late that he seemed to be correcting her pronunciation. He made a sorry-face meant only for his wife.

‘Oh, sorry,’ Marian said turning to look out the window at the bland and uninteresting suburbs.

‘No, Mum. That was our second date.’

‘Dad was expecting there to be other people there, but there wasn’t,’ Mia said cheekily. ‘They were all alone,’ and then added, ‘Ooooooo!’

Marian turned sharply to look at her grand-daughter. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

Mia ground the backs of two fingers against her lips and closed her eyes, ‘Mmmmmm.’

‘Oh stop it, Mia! You don’t know anything about it.’

‘I do so too,’ she said with confidence.

‘You’re only ten,’ Marian said looking askance at Jamal in the rear-view mirror.

‘I’ll be eleven soon,’ Mia countered. ‘Nearly a teenager.’

‘But not yet!’ Marian said. ‘You’re too young,’ she added while frowning again her disapproval at the back of Jamal’s head.

‘So, how is that neighbour of yours, Mum? Jenny, isn’t it?’ Elsbeth asked to change the subject.

‘Jennifer,’ Marian corrected. ‘She’s fine. Still smoking.’

And that seemed to be the end of the conversation as Marian returned to the nondescript view of grey-green bush now that they had left suburbia behind. Elsbeth rested her hand on Jamal’s thigh.

Marian Schiller, a third generation German Australian is fifty eight and a grandmother for the first time. Her daughter, Elsbeth (Elly) at twenty two married a journalist, Jamal (Mal) Aboud, a handsome second generation Lebanese Australian.

Marian had said nothing about her disappointment at her daughter’s choice of a husband, just like she chooses a hat, she thought, she fell in love and just had to have it; but she was self-aware enough to know that she had to control this feeling and that it was possible that other similar feelings might be lurking in her subconscious and that surfaced, like twinges in her lower back, when she least expected them. She wanted to be good. She had not been so good in the past, and at each slip the disapproving look from her daughter cut her deeply. Such looks were meant to only come from parents to children.

It wasn’t long before Jamal pulled into a small, graveled parking area.

‘Are we there?’ Marian asked with some alarm. The bush didn’t look anything like the park she was expecting.

‘Almost,’ Jamal said. We’ve got a little walk to the falls.’

‘A walk! How far?’

‘Only a few hundred meters,’ Elsbeth said. ‘Come on!’

‘Will we see a kangaroo?’ Mia asked as they all got out of the car.

‘We might,’ Marian said.

‘They’ll be asleep,’ Jamal said, opening the boot. ‘Pre-dawn and dusk are the best times to see them.’

How would you know? You’re not even Australian. ‘Where’s the path?’ Marian asked instead.

‘There,’ Elsbeth said, pointing across the road to a low gate. Jamal took the esky out and handed a bag of supplies to Elsbeth. ‘We might see some deer.’

‘It’s closed!’ said Marian with some hope. ‘Are we allowed to go down there?’ Recent summer rain made the path look extremely uninviting.

‘Just no car access,’ Jamal was carrying the esky and picnic bag. ‘I can help you over it, if you like.’

‘No, thank you. You never said we were going bush-walking.’

‘I said there’d be a little walk to the park.’

‘This isn’t a park.’

‘It’s the Royal National Park!’

‘I was expecting a park with grass, Mal, and a normal cement path not a bush-track. It’s just rocks and mud.’

‘I could piggy-back you.’

‘You will not!’

‘Come on Gran,’ Mia said. ‘It’ll be an adventure. Like explorers.’

‘It’s Grandma, young lady. One shortening is more than enough. There’s no need to shorten it again.’

‘Come on Mum,’ Elsbeth said with the rug and a bag of supplies. ‘We don’t have to hurry. We don’t have a train to catch.’

The four picnickers crossed the tarmac and stepped over the low gate. ‘If I break a heel ….’ Marian said with some force but then she needed all her concentration to navigate through and over, mud filled furrows, caked ruts, puddles and patches of gravel, leaf litter, and deer dung. The two adults and child had to wait for her many times.

‘Mum, take it easy’ Elsbeth said more than once.

‘Don’t you worry about me,’ Marian called back with eyes fixed on the treacherous ground. ‘You just keep your eyes open for snakes.’

‘Look Grandma!’ Mia shouted as she crouched by a layered clay bank at a patch of mossy soil. ‘There’s lots of sundews here.’

‘What!’ shouted Marian from a few meters back.

‘Insectivorous plants, Grandma! Sundews!’

‘That’s nice, dear,’ Marian said without looking up.

‘Can you see Dad?’

‘Yes, you’re right.’

‘But, they’re so small.’

‘And delicate. I wonder what they eat.’

‘Come on you two!’ Marian said having caught up with them. ‘If we don’t get there soon we’ll get there and have to turn around and come straight back again.’

‘You’re doing very well, we’re nearly there,’ Jamal said.

‘I’d believe you if it wasn’t for that smirk on your face.’

‘It’s just around the next bend, Mum,’ Elsbeth was ahead.

‘So is Christmas.’

Less than fifteen minutes later they came to a clearing overlooking a creek running over a low cliff of layered granite ledges. Little waterfalls cascaded into a wide, clear, and still pool, soft looking and tea-colored from the surrounding melaleucas and leaf detritus in its shallows.

‘It’s beautiful!’ Mia exclaimed.

‘We knew you’d like it,’ Jamal smiled at his wife.

‘Look Daddy! Caves under the waterfalls! Can I go look!’

‘You be careful Mia!’ Marian cautioned. ‘There could be things in there. And don’t get wet!’

‘Oh, Marian, I don’t think a little water will hurt,’ Jamal said as bright-eyed Mia headed for the shadowy caves.

Marian looked at her son-in-law askance. ‘Well, there’s definitely no picnic tables.’ And no grass.

‘Look Mum!’ Elsbeth said. ‘Over there’s a low ledge in the shade. You can sit there quite comfortably, I think.’

‘That’s a great spot!’ Jamal confirmed.

‘Getting there is the problem.’

‘Marian, you may have to take off your shoes,’ Jamal said.

‘What?’

‘Stay here. We’ll take everything down and Elsbeth can come back with my walkers for you.’

‘Your feet are much bigger than mine.’ And your walkers aren’t the cleanest either.

‘It’s just to get you down to the ledge. You can’t do that in heels.’

Marian waited. ‘Mia!’ she called. ‘Don’t go too far.’ She had to say something.

Elsbeth laid out the rug on the ledge and emptied the esky: chicken and mayonnaise sandwiches, drumsticks, bottles of juice and water, a container of cherry tomatoes, half a watermelon, cheese and crackers.

Marian sat on the edge of the ledge fanning herself with a plastic plate.

‘Mia!’ Jamal called. ‘Lunch is ready.’

‘Coming!’

‘Elsbeth,’ Marian whispered. ‘I can’t see any toilets.’

‘No,’ Elsbeth said. ‘But I‘ve bought a toilet roll.’

Marian stared at her, then at the surrounding bush, and back to her again. ‘You can’t be serious.’

‘M-u-m,’ said Elsbeth. She handed her mother a drumstick wrapped in a napkin.

Marian lowered her make-shift fan and glanced around for the cutlery but saw none and so let Elsbeth put the drumstick on her plate. Marian picked it up like a non-smoker taking a cigarette.

‘Isn’t this wonderful!’ cried Mia as she joined her family on the rug. ‘Can we go swimming later?’

’Oh n …’ began Marian.

‘Sure,’ Jamal said.’

‘You can see right to the bottom,’ said the excited girl.

‘Do you know what creatures live in that water?’ Marian asked to suggest caution.

‘Fish and small crustaceans I expect,’ Elsbeth said.

‘There may be glass,’ Marian continued. ‘You know how people can be.’

‘Don’t worry, Grandma, I’ll leave my shoes on. They’re made for water. You can use Dad’s and come in with me.’

‘No, thank you very much!’

‘Would you like some juice, Mum?’ Elsbeth asked.

‘No thank you.’

‘Water?’

‘No thanks, Mal.’

Elsbeth smiled at her husband. ’Do you remember where we sat?’

‘In that cave, I think.’

‘Did you bring a picnic like this?’ Mia asked.

‘No,’ he said. ‘I think we had a bottle of wine, though’.

‘That’s right. Koonunga Hill Shiraz. It was your favorite, remember?’

‘I certainly do. Still is my favorite. But,’ he said to Mia, ‘we made sure we took the empty bottle back with us.’

‘You drank a whole bottle?’ Marian’s raised eyebrows were at their limit.

‘Between the two of us.’ Marian caught the cheeky look he shared with Elsbeth and then checked if Mia had seen it.

There was silence for a while as all four people took in the surroundings.

‘Isn’t it gorgeous, Mum?’ Elsbeth said.

‘Yes, it’s very nice,’ Marian said to maintain the peace.

After everyone had eaten enough Elsbeth packed away the left overs while Mia took off her shorts, she had red swimmers underneath, and leaving her sneakers on she waded into the water.

‘You be careful now, Mia,’ Marian warned. “Shouldn’t she wait at least half an hour after eating?’

‘That theory was debunked years ago.’

‘I think, Mum, that only applies for physical exertion. She’s just cooling off.’

‘Ooooo!’ shrieked Mia, ‘it’s so cold and so soft. It’s like silk,’ and she ducked under the water.

Marian stiffened but took some comfort as both parents were watching their daughter. All three had that shaky investment in an only child. After about five minutes Mia came back and lay spread-eagled in the sun on the ledge. ‘That was great!’ she said.

‘Shouldn’t she have some sunscreen on?’ Marian suggested.

But Mia preempted any reply by jumping up and asking, ‘Can I go for a walk in the bush?’

Marian, tight lipped, looked at her daughter.

‘Sure,’ Elsbeth said. ‘Do you want us to come too?’

‘No. I can manage.’

‘You can walk around the pool,’ Jamal said, ‘just keep us in sight.’

‘As long as you can see or hear us,’ Elsbeth added.

‘Goody!’ said the girl as she jumped up and picked her way across several ledges and into the grey-green foliage.

Marian looked concerned. ’Shouldn’t she be wearing a hat.’

‘She’s in the shade,’ Jamal said.

All three adults kept their eyes on the flashes of red through the distant foliage. ‘I can’t hear you!’ the girl called from the undergrowth.

‘But we can see you!’ her father shouted back.

‘You look like an explorer!’ added Elsbeth.

‘You know, Marian,’ Jamal said, ‘we’re so proud of her and how she’s recovered from that silly accident.’

‘She’s regained all her confidence and then some,’ Elsbeth said. ‘She’s been chosen to captain the netball team. Six months ago that would’ve been impossible.’

The chat continued with proud parents explaining the advances and set-backs of Mia’s fall outside Marian’s apartment almost a year ago. Each parent occasionally checked on Mia as they talked.

Mia had got to the head of the pool where another little creek entered but she couldn’t get across because of the steep drop to sticky mud so she took a fallen and jagged tree truck to get over the creek and jagged rocks some meters below.

Marian had only taken her eye from her grand-daughter for a second to find a napkin and take a piece of watermelon but when she looked up …. it was her sharp intake of breath that alerted Jamal who, in an instant, turned, clasped a firm hand over Marian’s open mouth and forced her, with both hands, onto her side onto the rocky ledge. He held her down keeping her silent – her eyes bulging with surprise, shock, and indignation – as both parents held their breath as they watched their daughter, deep in concentration, maneuver her way over the rickety log to the safety of the other side.

When Marian felt Jamal’s grip on her weaken she struggled against him; he let go of her, and she staggered to her feet and with all the outrage she could muster growled, ‘How dare you!’

‘Mum…’ began Elsbeth.

She turned to her daughter and spat, ‘Shut up!’

And all three watched Mia pick her way back to them on the opposite side of the pool but before she got there Marian retreated as quickly as was possible to a flat rock away from the family.

‘That was great!’ Mia said. ‘I saw a lizard! Where’s Grandma going?’

‘You need a medal,’ said her father. ‘We don’t have any gold, but we have some watermelon.’

Mia laughed and took a wedge.

‘I’ll be back in a minute,’ Elsbeth said and headed off after her mother.

She found her leaning against a boulder brushing her clothes down.

‘Mum,’ Elsbeth spoke in as conciliatory a tone as she could muster. ‘Just a minute.’

Marian turned to face her daughter. Her face pink with rage. She had a twig in her hair. ‘That man attacked me!’

Elsbeth’s face lost all its attempt to pacify. ‘What do you mean ‘that man’?’

‘Your husband!’

Elsbeth matched her mother’s vehemence. ‘Yes, he’s my husband, your son-in-law, the father of your grand-daughter and he has a name.’ The two women glared at each other. ‘Well, go on!’

‘ … what?’

‘What is his name?’

Marian just stared at her daughter. There was fear and uncertainty in her eyes.

‘His name is Jamal,’ Elsbeth said.

‘I know that.’

‘Then why don’t you use it?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘You call him Mal. No one calls him Mal, except you. And I know exactly why you call him Mal: because it sounds more white!’

Marian stared at her daughter and she could feel terror creep into her veins. She turned and headed into the bush. ‘I’m going back ….’ she began but her throat closed up and deprived her of air and fight.

‘Is Grandma alright?’ asked a worried little girl.

‘She’s a bit upset,’ Elsbeth said as she started to tidy things up and repack the esky.

‘I explained a little bit,’ Jamal said.

‘She’s gone back to the car. We’ll have to go,’ Elsbeth said.

‘But, what …?’

‘Darling. We’ll explain when we get home. Let’s just pack up and save all your questions until then. You know we’ll answer them all, don’t you?’

‘Alright.’

‘And, Mia, that means not asking in the car,’ Jamal said. ‘It will really upset Grandma. It’s going to be a very quiet trip home.’

And it was. The atmosphere in the car was tense. Elsbeth turned the radio on but it didn’t help. Mia glanced over at her Grandmother who stared out the window, and saw her hair in disarray and a brown smudge on her cheek. She only glanced at her Grandmother once.

As soon as the car came to a stop outside Marian’s unit she opened the door and said with great difficulty, ‘I have to go to the bathroom. Thank you for a lovely day.’ She left the car door open and hurried to her front door, fumbled with the keys, opened it, left it open, and disappeared inside.

Jamal turned off the engine. ‘I’ll go and talk to her.’

‘Is that wise?’

‘I think so.’ Jamal got out of the car.

‘I don’t understand. Why is Grandma so cross?’ Mia began to cry.

‘Oh, darling,’ Elsbeth got out of the car and into the back seat to comfort her daughter. ‘It will all get better. Bad things always get better.’

Jamal entered Marian’s unit, closed the door, and waited in the middle of the neat living room. There was a framed photo of a smiling Mia and Marian on a little lace-covered table beside her chair. A bud-vase held a red carnation and next to it a pile of books whose spines were arranged in ascending order of size and all aligned with the table edge. He heard the toilet flush and then waited to hear the bathroom door open and close.

Marian appeared in the doorway and stopped. Surprise and then anger flashed across her face.

‘I want to explain,’ Jamal said.

‘There is nothing to say.’

‘Yes, there is. Will you let me try?’

Marian sat in her chair.

Jamal sat on the couch. ‘You were going to warn Mia.’

‘She was in danger.’

‘She was managing on her own. Concentrating.’

‘She could’ve fallen!’

‘Yes, if she had been distracted.’

‘I was only thinking of her.’

‘I know. So was I. I wasn’t thinking of you, Marian. Like you, I was thinking of Mia, maintaining her concentration.’

‘You attacked me.’

‘Yes. Because I was thinking of Mia.’

‘So I did the wrong thing.’

‘… yes; about to do the wrong thing.’

‘I see. I’m a danger to my own grand-daughter now, am I?’

‘Today. Yes, you were. Had you had time to think about it you would’ve remained silent. I’m sure of that; and hoped like us, that she would make it. But there wasn’t time. Reaction always comes before reason. Your reaction was wrong. I had to stop you. I had to. I hope I didn’t hurt you.’

‘Not that anyone can see.’

‘Mia is safe. No harm done. Not to her. Now, my focus is on you.’

Marian flashed a look at him.

‘I’m very sorry I did what I had to do. If I had time for reason I would’ve done it differently. But, like you, I reacted before thinking. We both reacted before thinking.’

Marian looked at him again, but only briefly.

‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Marian, for what I did to you. But I don’t regret it. I was only thinking of Mia.’

‘So you’ve said.’

‘As you were. And I don’t want what happened today to be like a never-healing sore on this family. So, if there is anything I can do to make things right; like they were. I will do it.’

Marian looked at him. And looked longer this time. And her back slowly straightened. Finally, she spoke. ‘Yes, there is something you … something I would like you to allow me to do.’

‘Anything.’

She stood.

Jamal stood as well.

She walked over to him and slapped him hard across the face.

As Jamal closed the door on Marian’s unit, Elsbeth and a much calmer Mia, watched him walk down the path, around the car, and slide into the driver’s seat.

‘How did that go?’ Elsbeth asked.

‘ … fine,’ Jamal said without looking at his wife. ‘Everything’s fine.’

‘Well that’s a relief. Let’s go home.’

‘… naeam.’

The Promise by Damon Galgut

The South African writer, Damon Galgut

It’s been 7 years since Galgut’s last novel, Arctic Summer (2014), a novelisation of the latter years of the English writer E. M. Forster, so The Promise, his latest, has been greatly anticipated. 

The most interesting aspect of this novel is the narrative voice. The writing is free-form: no quotation marks; dialogue and narrative merge – but you’ll be surprised how distinct and recognisable the dialogue is –  and usually in the 3rd person but with a little 1st, (my mother died this morning) and even a  peppering of the 2nd, like he’s talking to me, you, the reader, throwing asides at you, (check out the pic if you don’t believe me). Sometimes a character speaks aloud in a sentence started by the narrator; sometimes the narrator is embodied with feelings and sarcasm (Alwyn and his spouse, sorry, his sister…) It takes a few dozen pages for this free-form to meld into a tone, a voice, an attitude, but it does, and when it does you’ll be greatly relieved. You can relax, and once you do and let this voice work on you, you will have an entertaining reading experience. Although the narrator is unnamed, as most 3rd person narrators are, this one has attitude, likes, dislikes, and lets you know them. Changes of scene and characters happen mid sentence giving the narrative an unplanned wandering song-line, like a slideshow on a phone. It gives the work an attractive chatty tone but one that leads you deep inside the minds and actions of these flawed characters.

The book is divided in to 4 sections, each for one of the main characters of the Swart family, Ma, Pa, Astrid, and Anton. But the main character is Amor, the youngest, who is a child of 10 when her mother dies. However, days before, on Ma’s death bed, Amor overheard Ma’s dying wish: Salome, the family’s loyal, long-serving, bare-foot black maid, is to be given ownership of her rented small and ramshackle house and land. Pa agrees. This is The Promise. Over the following decades South Africa sheds its hated Apartheid system, Nelson Mandela becomes president, black rule fails almost everybody’s expectations and hope for a brighter and more prosperous future; not unlike the trajectory of the disintegrating Swart family; like the slow decline of Salome and her house. Amor goes her own way but the promise is forever on her mind and whenever she returns (Return to South Africa feels more like a condition than an act), only for family funerals, her determination to have the promise fulfilled is thwarted. Will the promise be fulfilled when she is the only one left? 

The knot of races in Galgut’s native South Africa seems never to be unloosed. This story could be read as a metaphor for the country; as could the plight of Salome; as could Amor’s bruised determination; yet there is hope in that she could be the only one left standing with a future to build, albeit an unknown one and obviously difficult. 

The telling, but unconscious, thoughts of the whites (… so many black people drifting about as if they belong here) pepper the text and each time cement the notion that change will always remain elusive. Do all the whites have to die before the blacks can claim their place? 

Highly recommended.

Galgut’s The Promise has made it onto the 2021 Booker Prize long list. If it gets to the short list, as it should, it will be his third: the first In a Strange Room in 2003 and The Good Doctor in 2010. The links will take you to my blog posts. 

You can buy the book, in various formats, here

UPDATE November 4 2021: Galgut’s The Promise won the 2021 Booker Prize!

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Kamila Shamsie pic
Pakistani-British writer Kamila Shamsie

Antigone, of Greek mythology, offspring from the incestuous relationship between Oedipus and his mother, Jocasta, has been, over millennia, the subject of books, plays, films and operas.

When Oedipus, King of Thebes, finds out his tragic truth – he  murdered his enemy not knowing he was his father, and then married the man’s wife – he plucks out his eyes and wanders in the wilderness accompanied by his dutiful daughter, Antigone. After his death, her brothers, Polynices and Eteocles fight over their father’s realm and both are killed. Their uncle, Creon, takes the throne and buries Eteocles with full royal honours but decrees that Polynices, who he labels a traitor, remain unburied as food for jackals and crows. Antigone, defies her uncle, despite her sister, Ismene, urging her not to, escapes the city, and buries her brother. She is arrested and sentenced to entombment, but hangs herself instead. Creon changes his mind and sends his son, Antigone‘s fiancé Haemon, to retrieve her, but he is too late. He also kills himself; as does his mother (grandmother), Jocasta, when she hears of the demise of the last of her children.

Despite the convoluted relationships, lust, greed, ambition, and the body count Antigone‘s story, at its core, is about sibling love and devotion. And it is around this theme that Shamsie composes her modern version of Antigone, her eighth novel Home Fire (2017), setting it among a contemporary British muslim family. It’s not a re-invention of the book; the Antigone story is not “in the skeleton of the book, but in the marrow of it”.

I thought reading during the pandemic lockdown would be a pass-time that would fit the circumstances snugly, as did many friends and contemporaries, but settling into a book hasn’t been easy, for me or them, and Home Fire was the fifth I tried and the one that finally grabbed my attention.

Shamsie’s novel is set in 2014-15 and her principle characters are three siblings, Isma Pasha, the eldest, who raised her younger paternal twins, Aneeka and Parvaiz after their mother died. Their father was a notorious jihadist fighter who died on his way to Guantanamo Bay. Isma, the only child he ever saw is on her way to a brilliant academic career in the US; Aneeka, the ‘beauty’, is serious about her Muslim faith and is studying to be a lawyer; Parvaiz, radicalised by his peers, follows in his father’s footsteps and ‘escapes’ to Raqqa, the ‘capital’ of ISIS, in Syria.

Isma meets Eamonn Lone, and then he, almost accidentally, meets Isma’s sister, Aneeka. He falls hopelessly in love, and it appears Aneeka returns his love; but she has another motive: Eamonn’s father is the highly public British Home Secretary, Karamet Lone, and she needs his help to get her repentant brother safely, and unnoticed, back to England at, of course, great political risk. Aneeka arranges to meet her brother at the British Consulate in Istanbul.

The stakes are high and Shamsie allows them to gradually gain their strength and danger through a very intimate love story. This is her strength. But she, understandably, lets in the public and media outcry when the ‘plot’ is revealed (no spoilers here), in the form of newspaper stories, including salacious tabloid exposés of a sex scandal involving Aneeka ‘Knickers’ Pasha, twin sister of the Muslim fanatic Parvaiz ‘Pervy’ Pasha, and her ‘seduction’ of the Home Secretary’s son for political motives. This strengthens the plot but weakens the personal and causes the heat of the story to drop a few degrees. Quite a few, in fact.

There’s an argument here for the necessity of the public story taking centre stage but, for this reader, public tragedies are daily, and usually unemotional, events, thanks to the persistency of the media; what I missed here was the intimacy of the narrative that had, up until the public narrative took over, swept me up in its poignancy, emotion, and the oozing into it of looming tragedy. I wanted to read the climax on the page, not read about someone watching it on television. There must have been structural decisions made about this; a different structure could’ve worked better for me.

However, what I will remember are the extremely effective domestic and romantic scenes between people working out their decisions between each other in dangerous circumstances, and I am interested to read Shamsie’s previous and future work.

In September last year, Shamsie was awarded, among others, the Nelly Sachs Award for Literature from the German City of Dortmund for her contribution to fostering understanding between peoples, and I can see how Home Fire could support this. However the City rescinded the prize because of her support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights, and seen as anti-Israel, causing outrage from the global literary community and over 250 writers signed an open letter in the London Review of Books in September 2019 attacking the City of Dortmund for its decision. Shamsie is unrepentant and still believes that “the demonising of BDS, which is a peaceful movement asking for international law to be upheld, is an outrage“.

You can watch a BBC4 interview with Shamsie about the controversy here.

Here you can hear Shamsie talk about her experiences as a Muslim Briton and her writing of Home Fire; and it’s a particularly ‘pure’ interview since the interviewer’s questions have been edited out.

And for the more deeply interested, here is an hour-long presentation by Kamila Shamsie about Home Fire given at the Politics and Prose Bookshop on Connecticut Avenue, Chevy Chase, Washington D.C. in September 2017.

You can buy Home Fire in various formats, and other works by Kamila Shamsie, here.