Tuesday, 31 July 2012

The Guilty One by Lisa Ballantyne | The Angel Killer

The Guilty One is Lisa Ballantyne's debut novel. According to the publisher, the crime fiction book is bound to be a success, and based on the unusual and unsettling topic, I can definitely see it getting a lot of attention.

11-year old Sebastian Croll is accused of the murder of 8-year old Ben Stokes. Having been spotted fighting on the day of the crime, and with blood traces on his clothes, things are not looking good for the strange Sebastian who claims to have been with his fragile mother at the time the crime was committed. We follow Sebastian's attorney, Daniel Hunter, as the case forces Daniel to take a closer look on his own troubled childhood.

At 35, Daniel is a successful London attorney, but Sebastian reminds him that at his age, Daniel lived a very different life. With an absent father and a drug addict mother, the young Daniel is used to fighting, running, and always worrying about his mother. When he is placed with the foster mother Minnie on a country farm, Daniel manages to turn his life around. However, when Minnie does the unforgivable, Daniel walks out of her life and never looks back. Until now.

There is a strong link between "the Angel Killer" case and Daniel's own childhood problems. Daniel feels a tie to Sebastian, who seems to look up to him. If Sebastian is found guilty, he will be thrown into a prison system which will only worsen his problems. In the book we learn that in the UK, children are from the age of 10 considered legally responsible. In my home country of Norway, and the rest of Scandinavia, the age is 15. That said, there was a tragic case in Sweden in 2011 where a 10-year old child killed a 4-year old child on a playground. Because the perpetrator was a minor, child welfare took over. In the UK, however, that is not the case, and Sebastian risks actual prison sentence if he is found guilty.

The Guilty One is at times really creepy. There is obviously something up with Sebastian, guilty or not. The court case details were really interesting, and it is unusual get the perspective of the accused and the defender instead of the victim and prosecutor. The story of Daniel was also well developed. Minnie is just a great, complex character, and so is Daniel.

What I really enjoyed about this novel is the social commentary and the way nothing is clear cut. There are no innocents in this novel, everyone is guilty in some way. It is also nice that not everything is resolved or put out in the open. There are still aspects that are left to the imagination.

Well done on your first novel, Ballantyne. I wouldn't mind revisiting Daniel some time in the future.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Lessons in Husbandry by Shaida Kazie Ali | A Memoir of Grief and Hope

I just love it when something unexpected hits me. When my boss asked me to read Lessons in Husbandry I wasn't expecting much. But Shaida Kazie Ali's book caught me completely off guard. The story is beautifully written, the plot grips you from the very first pages, and up until the last page I didn't know how she would pull it all together. But pull it together she does, and I'm now excited to have made the acquaintance of a new, exciting South African voice.

10 years after her sister Amal disappears, Malak is still struggling with coming to terms with the gap left behind. Shortly after the disappearance, Malak agreed to marry Amal's fiance Taj, but their union is solely based on their mutual grief. Encouraged by her partner in Cupcakes, Rakel, Malak start attending writing classes. She'll write about Amal's disappearance, and the novel basically makes up this memoir.

Malak leads a fairly predictable life. Her days are spent making cupcakes, speaking to her husbands "brother" Precious while Taj is busy in his career as a fertility doctor, and paying the regular visits to her mother. Every day bears the absence of her sister. Malak's life is turned upside down when she is stuck in an elevator with a strange man. For the first time, Malak understands the meaning of passion, but she's now caught between two men - neither of who know of the other. Afraid of severing her last ties to her sister, Malak simply cannot leave Taj, but she is also unable to picture a future without Darya in it.

The book is divided into seven chapters, each of which is its own "lesson in husbandry". Each chapter begins in the writing classes, and the different writing exercises they do allow us to dig deeper into the story of Malak and Amal. Not everything they write has to be true, however, which reminds us as readers that Malak could be hiding facts or rewriting the history for all we know. So Lessons in Husbandry is not only a story about grief and love, it is also a novel about writing (which tend to be my favourites). 

I can't emphasize enough how much I enjoyed this book. With a healthy dose of irony and humour, Ali sculpts her novel masterfully. Read it.

Friday, 6 July 2012

The Blue Door by Lise Kristensen | A Silenced History

Now while my last read was Across the Bridge of Dreams which romanticizes the samurai culture, The Blue Door by Lise Kristensen depicts a very different view of the Japanese. I decided to read it because not a lot of Norwegian authors are represented in my bookshop in Jo'burg, but I think it's actually not available in Norwegian (yet).

The Blue Door moved me deeply. The author Lise Kristensen was born in 1934 in Java, and she narrates what befell her and her family during the second world war. Her family lived a rather easy life in Java before the war. But gradually their carefree existence started changing. One day her father is brutally taken away by Japanese soldiers. Soon after, the women and children are taken away too. Lise along with her mother, sister and brother are transported to a POW camp. Lise's personal hell is about to start.

I expected the starvation, the discomforts, the small space, the diseases. What I didn't see coming was the torture, the brutality, the cruelty, the evil. This is not for the faint-hearted. What the 10-year old Lise sees and experiences is beyond anything I can imagine. They stay in a camp with women and children, yet the Japanese soldiers do not hesitate to torture, rape, taunt, abuse... -All the while saying that the Emperor wants his prisoners to be healthy. I have to admit that this piece of history is unfamiliar to me. Kristensen backs this up in her afterword, saying that Japan has silenced the memory of their POW camps.

Apart from a description of the atrocities Lise, her family and all the other people in the camps had to face, Lise focuses on how they managed to LIVE in this place. Lise realizes that in order not to starve to death, she has to steal whatever she comes across. There are some really fun passages of Lise's escapades in the camps, including some very close calls. The fly hunt is also quite amusing. Lise becomes a very resourceful girl, and she basically takes care of her younger siblings because their mother becomes very ill in the camps.

Kristensen doesn't wallow in self-pity, but she relates how she survived the POW camps, and what impact this experience came to have in her life. She is always reflective, even though her childhood self always wonders why the Japanese soldiers do their evil (or neglecting) deeds. In her afterword she says that writing this book is part of her healing process. That said, she also wanted to prevent this part of the WWII history from being forgotten. I think she does an amazing job of it.

Years ago I read Dessert Exile, an autobiography that deals with the internment of Japanese Americans in America. I think The Blue Door is a sort of antithesis to that. Kristensen has written an important contribution to our collective memory of WWII. The book is deeply moving, but also funny. I recommend it strongly, and I think "everyone" should read it.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Across a Bridge of Dreams by Lesley Downer | Retelling "the Last Samurai"

So I love Asianvision movies like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", "Hero" and "The House of Flying Daggers", but I have to admit that I haven't read a lot of books about Samurai, with the exception of the brilliant Shogun by James Clavell. When I saw the cover of Across a Bridge of Dreams I knew I had to read it. It turned out to be an impossible love story, a Japanese version of  "Romeo and Juliet". I loved it!

Taka is the daughter of the geisha Fujino and the greatest Satsuma samurai of all, Kitaoka. Japan is in turmoil after a period of war between north and south. Nobu is a northerner whose family was greatly affected by the war, and despite being samurai, he has to make a living by working as a servant. Unforeseen events place Nobu in the Kitaoka household, but despite Nobu's hatred for the name that is responsible for all his misfortunes, he cannot help but be drawn to beautiful Taka. In secret, Taka helps Nobu with his reading and writing, and a bond quickly develops between them. Taka's suspicious brother Eijiro ensures that Nobu is kicked out of the house and Nobu starts training for the army.

Fujino starts making arrangements for Taka to be married. As a daughter of a great samurai, she can be married well, despite her geisha background. Taka dreads a future as a samurai wife, but she pretends to be excited about it. Meanwhile, trouble is stirring in the country. Western culture is putting a lot of pressure on the Japanese way of life, and a lot of changes are enforced by the new government. General Kitaoka has not been heard from for years, but there are rumours that he is behind an uprising in the south. Just as Nobu and Taka find each other again, war breaks out, Taka is forced to flee Tokyo, and Nobu has to go to war against her father.

Downer describes really well how the Japanese had to get used to Western clothes and food, and the challenges people faced in getting used to this. I also feel that I got a better understanding of Japanese culture at the end of the 1800s. Geishas and samurai occupied very different spheres of life, yet they often came together. The hate/love relationship people had to geishas is fascinating, and I truly felt for Taka when she had to go to school with "pure" samurai girls who turned their noses up at her.  

I love how Downer weaves together Japanese histories and myths in her narrative, giving it a magical element. Nobu and Taka seem destined for each other, despite the odds. Yet I kept guessing to the last few pages. Downer builds the tension steadily, so that towards the end the story literally reaches a climax. All the events come together in a surprising and nerve-wrecking way.

Across a Bridge of Dreams is both beautiful and tragic. The characters are facing the death of a way of life, but this death might bring new hope to our star-crossed lovers. Taka and Nobu  grow from teenagers to proper heroes. I loved this story. I hope you'll love it too.