Category Archives: Magic Realism

Knee Deep

Young adult novel about Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and voodoo

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publicist.

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Image is of a city street flooded with a girl floating in a small dinghy on top

“Knee Deep” by Karol Hoeffner is a young adult novel about a 16 year old white girl called Camille who lives a slightly off-beat life as the daughter of owners of a bar in New Orleans. Exposed to a very diverse range of people in the French Quarter, Camille’s first love is for her handsome next door neighbour, an 18 year old young black man called Antwone. Already facing the not inconsequential obstacles of an interracial romance and Antwone’s current girlfriend, Camille’s crush is truly put to the test by Hurricane Katrina. When Antwone goes missing, Camille turns to voodoo magic to return her love to her. However, her dogged pursuit in a city of chaos puts more than just her dreams of a relationship at risk.

This is a readable and creative novel that resonates as a historical and cultural touchstone. Although of course in Australia we all saw the reports of Hurricane Katrina on the news, and have watched TV shows that reference the struggles to rebuild, it is hard to imagine what it was really like being there during such a challenging and tumultuous time. Hoeffner has a compelling writing style that reminded me a bit of Daniel Woodrell in his book “Kiss Kiss”. Camille is a really interesting character who makes a number of ethically suspect and selfish decisions, and Hoeffner fosters a strong sense of dramatic irony around her crush and exactly how requited it actually is.

I think the only part of this book that got under my skin was that Hoeffner did take some creative liberties with elements of the story. For example, although the hurricane happened in 2005, Hoeffner describes her characters posting on Facebook several times even though the social media service wasn’t open to public access until late 2006.

A unique and historically relevant book that showcases New Orleans culture and challenges the reader with ethical questions.

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The Constant Rabbit

Speculative fiction about an England where rabbits are anthropomorphic

Content warning: discrimination, disability

I’ve mentioned this author a couple of times on here previously: once when I saw him speak at an event and got my book signed, and when I reviewed one of his books. I really enjoyed hearing him speak about writing funny books, and he is one of the few authors who makes me laugh aloud. While we are all waiting eagerly for a sequel to his novel “Shades of Grey”, I was thrilled to see that he had a new release this year and even more thrilled that it appeared to be about rabbits. I don’t think anyone would be surprised to know that I love rabbits and without even reading the blurb this book had considerable appeal to me.

Image is of the cover of the book “The Constant Rabbit” by Jasper Fforde pictured with my brown and white rabbit Ori. Her ears are in a similar position to the ears on the book’s cover.

“The Constant Rabbit” by Jasper Fforde is a speculative fiction novel about an alternative England with anthropomorphic rabbits. For over 50 years, rabbits have been able to walk upright, speak, have jobs, start families and have become the target of considerable discrimination. Public servant Peter Knox works in a seemingly innocuous job and lives an unassuming life with his daughter in a small village. However, when two rabbits and their children move in next door, Peter must confront his past and his own role in the anti-rabbit policy to force England’s rabbits to move to a MegaWarren in Wales.

Image is of the book “The Constant Rabbit” by Jasper Fforde standing upright next to my brown and white rabbit Ori who is losing patients with being photographed

I was absolutely the perfect audience for this book and I enjoyed it from start to finish. This was a really amusing book that had me laughing aloud at multiple points. However, it is also a really clever book and the rabbits are a fantastic allegory for racial politics in the UK today. Fforde presses the reader to consider the whole spectrum of bigotry from failing to speak out against discriminatory jokes all the way to outright violence and vilification. It was also really interesting to see how Fforde interwove typical British politeness with conservative, exclusionary views. Peter was an excellent, complex character who struggles to reconcile his own progressive views with the system he implicitly supports through his work. The interactions between himself, Constance Rabbit and her husband were among the funniest parts of the book. I also really liked the way Fforde wrote about disability focusing on individuals and accessibility rather than the particulars of the disability itself. Fforde also leaves plenty to the imagination when it came to how rabbits became anthropomorphic, though I loved the interlude of an alternative history for the Big Merino in Goulburn.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable and extremely relevant book and I cannot wait to see what Fforde comes up with next.

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The Factory Witches of Lowell

Historical fantasy about industrial action in America

Content warning: slavery

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.

“The Factory Witches of Lowell” by C. S. Malerich is a historical fantasy novella set in Massachussets, USA in the 19th century and is a fictionalised account of the Lowell Mill Girls. When management increases the rent of the women who work in textile factories without increasing their wages, the women organise themselves and agree to go on strike. With the help of Mrs Hanson, who runs one of the boardinghouses, and the guidance of ailing Hannah Pickering who has a gift for seeing, the women cast a spell to ensure they all stick to the strike until their demands are met. However, when management counter their action, the women realise they are going to have to take more drastic measures.

This is a light-hearted story that transforms a historical event into a subtle fantasy novella just one step shy of magic realism. The magic is sparse yet effective. Although dealing with serious issues including women’s rights and workers’ rights, Malerich has a humorous and gentle style that makes this book very quick and readable. Judith Whittier is a strong character and a strong leader, and I really enjoyed the banter between her and Hannah. I thought the romance in this book was done well, and was a good counterbalance to the industrial action afoot in the town. There is a point in the book where Mrs Hanson’s loyalties come into question, and I had my heart in my mouth wondering what was going to happen next.

I think that the only issue I had was that this book does at times border on an irreverent tone. The reader is thrown headlong into a very limited point in time, and I felt that the terrible working conditions of the women were downplayed somewhat, and the resolution seemed too simple, given the historical context. Malerich, I think in an effort to acknowledge that slavery was still in place during this time, refers to Hannah’s ability to see a physical embodiment of being enslaved. This was handled in an unfortunately dehumanising way, and became more about furthering Hannah’s story rather than a comment on slavery itself.

A light, enjoyable read that perhaps occasionally made too light of some things.

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Piranesi

Surreal novel about a world of halls and statues

Content warning: trauma, disability

I have been anticipating this book since I first heard it was coming out earlier this year. I must have read her previous book “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” just before I started this blog, and it is honestly a fantastic example of the fantasy genre. It was also adapted into a BBC miniseries which is, unusually, just as good and I highly, highly recommend it as well. Despite her excellence as a writer, the author has unfortunately not published anything since her debut novel came out about 15 years ago due to her struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome or more accurately known as ME/CFS. This is a debilitating disease that can affect anyone, and that has an enormous impact on day-to-day life. Clarke has spoken frankly about her experiences as an author with chronic illness and how she was able to tackle a project like her second novel.

Image of “Piransi” by Susanna Clarke placed on a black and gold promotional tote bag with a similar design

In a physical sense, this book is absolutely stunning. The dust jacket is decorated with copper foil, and the hardcover underneath has a complementary but different design with each letter of the title, in the same font as the dust jacket, resting on a pillar. When I bought my copy from Harry Hartog, I was absolutely delighted to see that it came with a free tote bag which I have been using constantly, I love it so much.

Image of “Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke with art from the XU ZHEN®: ETERNITY VS EVOLUTION exhibition currently at the National Gallery of Australia in the background. I would really recommend visiting this exhibition if you want to get a sense of what Piranesi’s world is like.

“Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke is a fantasy novel about a man who lives in the House. The House is made up of many, many halls – each one leading to another. The man has one friend he calls the Other who in turn calls him Piranesi, though Piranesi is not sure if that is his real name. Piranesi spends his days observing the statues in the halls, gathering food, anticipating the ocean tides that rise and fall through the halls and writing his observations and thoughts in his carefully indexed notebooks. However, shortly after one of his biweekly meetings with the Other, the Other warns Piranesi not to speak to anyone else he might come across in the House. When a new person suddenly appears with a counter-warning, and Piranesi finds messages written in chalk, his understanding of the world is shattered. Unsure who is friend and who is foe, Piranesi must place his faith in the House and figure out the truth.

This is an exceptional novel. The pacing is absolutely perfect and Clarke expertly unfurls the story, tantalising the reader with each new piece of information. It is a surreal novel, and Clarke somehow manages to make the seemingly endless halls seem both infinite and claustrophobic. Piranesi is an extraordinarily patient, resourceful and spiritual character whose main object is survival in this peculiar world. His meticulous observation and note-taking skills allow him to predict the dangers and bounties of the House and live with just enough security to explore its halls and study its statues. Clarke is very concerned with perspective in this book, and it quickly becomes clear that Piranesi’s worldview is at odds with that of the Other and even with his past self. Through this novel, Clarke explores the limits of human adaptability and the lengthswe will go to for self-preservation. I also really liked how she handles the question of identity, what it is that makes us individuals and the extent to which memory and identity are entertwined.

Also, I cannot review this book without mentioning how thrilled and excited I was that there was a character called Angharad. I legitimately did not see how it could get any better, and then Clarke drops a character with my name.

An incredible book that I enjoyed start to finish. Clarke is one of the best fantasy authors out there and if she continues to write books of this calibre, there is no limit to how long I will wait for the next one.

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The Bird King

Historical fantasy novel about the fall of the Emirate of Granada

This was the the latest set book for my fantasy book club, and I did attend this time (albeit with lots of typing out my thoughts on my phone). I had not heard of this book before but the premise was interesting, and I did manage to finish most of it before the book club.

“The Bird King” by G. Willow Wilson is a historical fantasy novel set just before the downfall of the Emirate of Granada. The book is about Fatima, a slave and concubine to the last sultan for whom the palace is a gilded cage. Although well-fed and well-cared for compared to the rest of the declining nation, the walls of the palace chafe against Fatima and it is only in her friend Hassan, a mapmaker, that she finds solace. However, Hassan’s ability to make imagined places reality with his maps draws the attention of representatives from the new Spanish monarchy. When his life is placed in danger, he and Fatima flee the palace. With nothing but themselves, a jinn and faith in half a story about an island ruled by the Bird King, Fatima and Hassan must outrun the Spanish Inquisition.

This book started out really strong with a very unique premise. Fatima is a compelling character who, despite her official status as a court slave and concubine, is very smart, spirited and doted upon by the sultan and his mother. However, despite her relatively luxurious lifestyle, there are constant small reminders of her true position in the palace – including that her relationship with the sultan is only ever on his terms. I really liked the way that Wilson posed two possible lives for Fatima: a life of certainty and comfort, possibly as the mother of a sultan’s sons, but a life never truly her own; and a life of uncertainty but with the freedom to live and die on her own terms.

I also really liked the relationship between Fatima and Lady Aisha, and the complexities, parallels and empathy between the two. Vikram the jinn was another great character who slowly revealed himself to become one of Fatima’s greatest allies. Hassan’s ability to recreate reality through his maps was such an interesting and original magical ability and Wilson really explored it well throughout the book.

However, I felt like the second half of the book started to unravel a bit compared to how compelling the first half was. Although the antagonist Luz was a deeply ominous presence early in the novel, I felt like (without giving too much away) her character’s arc was a little confusing and ultimately a little convenient. I didn’t think the sailor-cum-monk Gwennec added a lot to the story either, and was one of many new characters who were introduced very late into the story and therefore hard to form a connection with. While Fatima and Hassan’s friendship was for the most part incredibly beautifully written, I did feel a bit like it would have been even more powerful had it been strictly platonic on both sides the entire time. The final chapters of the book felt very muddy, and I think perhaps if the final battle was going to be the focus of the book, it would have been better to spend more time getting to know its location than on how they got there in the first place.

A refreshingly original story with a lot of great elements and writing that unfortunately lost a bit of steam towards the end.

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Braised Pork

Surreal novella about a young Beijing widow

Back in the good old days, before social distancing, I used to go to the gym and listen to audiobooks to inspire me to keep going back. After my last few experiments, I thought perhaps 10+ hours of audiobook was a little long for my limited attention span and memory, so I thought I would try something a little shorter. On Audible, you can set the search terms for books of particular lengths, so I browsed some of the shorter ones (4 – 6 hours). This one was just over 5 hours, and sounded perfect.

Braised Pork cover art

“Braised Port” by An Yu and narrated by Vera Chok is a surreal novella about a young woman called Jia Jia whose husband dies unexpectedly while taking a bath. Childless, largely locked out of his will and without the structure of her traditional marriage, Jia Jia is left with their apartment and a small allowance. As she slowly starts to venture out into the world seeking a new independence through her art, Jia Jia begins to be plagued by realistic dreams of a watery world and the image of the fish man drawing her husband left on the bathroom slink. Eventually, after her attempt at a new romance falls flat, Jia Jia decides to retrace her husband’s last trip to Tibet to try to discover the significance of the fish man.

This is an unusual, dreamlike story the pacing of which mirrors Jia Jia’s own meandering life. I really enjoyed Yu’s writing style. She has some striking imagery that really stayed with me. There was one particular scene where she refers to Jia Jia’s hair as looking like a stroke of calligraphy, and there are quite a few similar turns of phrase throughout. This is an original story with a unique point of view. Jia Jia is an intriguing character who, after having lived her whole life doing what she’s told, suddenly finds herself cut adrift. Although she finds a new purpose searching for the meaning of the fish man, there is still the sense that she is struggling to find her independence from men, be it her belated husband, her father, her lover or even a fellow traveller. Yu explores some interesting nuances of class in Beijing, in particular Jia Jia’s new status as a widow with limited financial resources. Chok is an excellent narrator with a clipped accent and matter-of-fact style that lends itself perfectly to the story.

Although it is a short read, this is a complex story that incorporates a lot of themes, elements and locations. While many of the scenes were themselves steeped with meaning, the story didn’t always feel as though it had a strong central thread to connect them together. I think the part that I struggled with the most was the significance of the watery world and the fish man. I’m not quite sure if I had tuned out while I was doing stretches at the gym or whether the story was deliberately left open-ended, but it felt like despite the several small revelations, the final picture was still kind of indecipherable.

A fascinating debut that perhaps leaves the reader with more questions than answers, I’m looking forward to seeing what Yu writes next.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Magic Realism, Novella

If Cats Disappeared from the World

Japanese magic realism novel about death and the little things

I had noticed this little book a while ago in a bookshop. It has a striking cover, a ink black cat with eyes embellished with gold foil that makes it look like it’s staring right at you. I noticed it, but didn’t buy it. Then one day I was checking my street library, and a copy was sitting right inside. Of course I had to read it.

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Thank you to my colleague Ingrid and her obliging cat Callie for these great photos

“If Cats Disappeared from the World” by Genki Kawamura and translated by Eric Selland is a Japanese magic realism novel about an unnamed postman who is diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer. Distraught, the narrator is offered a deal by the Devil, who appears as his doppelganger, as a way to prolong his life. For every additional day the narrator chooses to live, the Devil will remove an item from the world. The first item seems simple: telephones. However reminiscing about his ex-girlfriend and their relationship which was conducted primarily over the telephone, leads the narrator to reconnect with her one last time. The next item, television, also becomes problematic. When the Devil proposes cats, the narrator is faced with making Cabbage, the cat he inherited from his mother and who has suddenly started speaking, disappear.

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This is an unusual little novel with an intriguing premise: how much of the world can you remove before life isn’t worth living? I quite enjoyed the story of an ordinary man, with an ordinary job, who is faced with the reality of his unremarkable life just before his untimely death. I liked how the author explored the way that the narrator had allowed himself to become isolated, and how he had lost contact with those most important to him and how ultimately, in the wake of his mother’s death, he had himself become lost.

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It’s difficult to review a book when you like the idea but not the execution. I want to say something first about the translation, because it’s not clear how much of my criticism is due to the translation, and how much is due to the writing itself. I think that Kawamura has a relaxed, minimalist narrative style that Selland has adapted into a modern American tone. While occasionally drawing on global elements at points in the story such as Christian iconography, the Devil’s choice of attire and his travels with his ex-girlfriend overseas, there is not a very strong sense of place in this book.

While I understand that the narrator is meant to be a generic everyman, with nothing distinctive about his life except his feelings and relationships, I struggled to find a foothold while reading. I think that overall, Kawamura probably spent a little bit too long spelling out exactly what the author was thinking and feeling at any given time, and not really enough on fleshing out the novel’s strength: exploring the idea of what would happen if things started disappearing from the world. Maybe that would be the difference between magic realism and science fiction, but I think I would have preferred Kawamura to have committed more fully to his concept and spent less time the exposition of a backstory that I wasn’t invested in.

An interesting concept that felt like it needed colouring in.

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The Strawberry Thief

Fourth installment in the “Chocolat” series

Warning: this review contains spoilers for “Chocolat”, “The Lollypop Shoes” and “Peaches for Monsieur le Curé”

I’m an enormous Joanne Harris fan, and I’ve been reading her books since I came across one in a house my family stayed at in the south of France when I was a teenager. I loved the first book in this series, and it was probably one of my earliest forays into magic realism. As more books in the series have been released sporadically over the years, I’ve religiously bought and read them. I didn’t think there was going to be another one, but as soon as I saw that there was, I rushed to the bookstore to buy it. Unfortunately, I was a couple of days to soon for the release date, so I tried again a few days later and secured myself a copy.

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“The Strawberry Thief” by Joanne Harris is the fourth installment in the “Chocolat” series. In this book, Vianne Rocher is back living in the French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes. Although she is back working in a chocolate shop, Vianne is going through a transition phase. Her daughter Anouk has moved away to Paris to live with her boyfriend, her other daughter Rosette, isolated by her disability, is spending more and more time alone and Roux seems to be pulling away from her. When a tattoo artist called Morgane moves into the shop across the way, Vianne fears that someone else has come to try to steal her daughters away from her. However, when Rosette inherits a piece of land, the community is thrown into a spin and the unlikely person left to solve the mystery of the recently deceased Narcisse is the local priest Raynaud.

Harris is an exquisite writer, and I love how this series has grown over time. When “Chocolat” was first published, Vianne was strong, feisty and idealistic. She blew into Lansquenet on a wild wind with Anouk with big plans. As time goes on, and she has a daughter with a disability, Vianne changes. She becomes more concerned with fitting in, with being accepted, and somewhere along the line she changes from being a mysterious witch to a small business owner. Even though she loves her daughters more than anything, she is starting to grieve their transition into adulthood and is finding it hard to imagine her life without them. Vianne also experiences a lot of guilt as a mother of a child with disability.  I thought that Harris really captured Vianne’s point of view in a way that would resonate with a lot of people.

This book is also really the first book that has shown Rosette’s perspective as a person with disability. Rosette has cri du chat syndrome, and because of her appearance and difficulties with verbal speech, she struggles to find acceptance. I felt that Harris did a really good job of balancing Rosette’s inner voice with her outer voice, and how she goes through the motions of trying to find her own independent life.

I think that the one thing that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with was the way that Harris connected magic with Rosette’s disability. Without giving too much away, there is a part in the book that suggests that Rosette’s disability is caused by some kind of cantrip and that if the spell can be broken, her disability will, if not cured, be significantly reduced. I completely see what Harris was trying to do and tie in the themes of the series together with the realities of living with and parenting someone with a disability. I think that despite the way Harris approached the rest of the book, it was this part that suggested that Rosette’s problem was her difficulties in communicating, and not the failure of her community to adapt, make adjustments and include her.

This series has changed over time, but at its heart it is a series about motherhood. Harris is a flexible and beautiful writer and each book grows and explores new issues as society grows. This is a perfect pick-me-up over a cup of hot chocolate.

 

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Like Water for Chocolate

Mexican magic-realism romance

This is one of those books that everyone seems to nod knowingly when you mention its name. The title just rolls off young tongue when you say it, and is so evocative. I always thought it referred to the craving for water you often feel after eating chocolate. However, I later found out that it actually refers to a Spanish phrase meaning emotions almost boiling over, referring to how hot chocolate is made in Mexico. After watching the film adaptation of the book, I managed to somewhere find an incredibly battered copy of the book. The copy was so battered, it is literally the first book I think I’ve ever seen with an actual bookworm. Nevertheless, I was very ready to read it.

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My attempt at making one of the book’s recipes, cream fritters,. I think I under-cooked the custard, or under-beat the egg white, but anyway I only managed to fry up three of them before everything essentially disintegrated, so if any colleagues are reading this, I was going to bring this into work, but be grateful that I didn’t! Also, after the fiasco of trying to fry a fourth fritter, there was no chance I was going to attempt the complicated syrup recipe in the book (more egg white) so I just went went with golden syrup. They tasted OK in the end, like very rich eggy pancakes, but a far cry I’m sure from what Esquivel had in mind.

“Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Instalments with Recipes, Romances and Home Remedies” by Laura Esquivel and translated by Carol and Thomas Christensen is a Mexican magic-realism romance novel. The story follows Tita, the youngest of three daughters in the De La Garza family, who falls in love with a man called Pedro. However, as the youngest daughter, Tita is forbidden to marry by her mother who instead forces Tita to look after her until she dies. In an interesting twist of logic, Pedro decides to instead marry her sister Rosaura in order to remain close to Tita. However, confined by her duties and relegated to the kitchen cooking the most sumptuous meals, it isn’t long before Tita’s emotions start to seep out.

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My first book worm!

This book is simply delightful. I have a real soft spot for books that have recipes in them, and this entire book is peppered with traditional, hearty Mexican recipes. Real soul food. I love how intertwined Tita’s cooking was with her emotions, and I loved the subtlety of the magic that sweeps through the house whenever Tita becomes emotional. I also loved the story of Gertrudis, the middle sister, who is a beacon of sexual liberation and girl power. It’s a wild tale, with increasingly outrageous and unlikely events, and it is immensely fun to read. I really enjoyed Esquivel’s writing, and there is a tongue-in-cheek aspect to it throughout the entire novel.

I think that there were just a few things that were a bit annoying about this book. I found the interlude where Tita leaves the manor in a great state of depression to be really quite tedious, and the characters that were briefly introduced at that point to be pretty beige (although an interesting insight into the ethnic diversity of Mexico). I also wasn’t that sold on Pedro either, who seemed to be throughout the story an irredeemable idiot.

Nevertheless, a magical Mexican romp that will leave you in a state of incredulity. Definitely worth a read if you want something that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

buy the book from The Book Depository, free delivery

Like Water For Chocolate

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Frankenstein in Baghdad

Modern retelling of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” set in Iraq

Content warning: war, violence, fake blood

I received an advance reading copy of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog.

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“Frankenstein in Baghdad” by Ahmed Saadawi is a horror novel that puts a modern spin on Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” by reimagining the creation of the monster shortly after the US invasion of Iraq. The story is set in a neighbourhood in Baghdad, the capital city of Iraq, where an old woman called Elishva lives alone waiting for her son Daniel (whom everyone, including her daughters, believes is dead) to return home. She has two rather unsavoury neighbours: Faraj and Hadi. Faraj, a real estate agent, hopes to buy Elishva’s large, historical and largely undamaged home. Hadi, a junk dealer, hopes to buy her vast collection of antiques. While waiting for Elishva to finally give up her possessions, Hadi has been engaging in a strange compulsion to collect body parts after the many explosions in Baghdad. When the enormous corpse goes missing, up-and-coming journalist Mahmoud investigates the escalating violence and strange murders that start occurring in the city.

This book started out very intriguingly with a report from a mysterious committee that makes recommendations in relation to the activities of the Tracking and Pursuit Department and the arrest of an author who had prepared a 250 page story. The book then starts from there. Thematically, this was an incredibly interesting story that uses the corpse made up of disparate body parts as a shrewd metaphor for the war in Iraq. Saadawi presents a scathing look at the way war becomes self-sustaining through corruption, greed, revenge and desensitisation. Mahmoud provides an interesting perspective as a character who straddles ethical and unethical journalism. Jonathan Wright’s translation from the Arabic feels smooth and nuanced.

However, I struggled with some parts of this book. There were very few female characters in this novel and the women who were featured seemed to fall within the tropes of crazy cat lady, ice queen and replacement love interest. None of the women have much agency or personality, and even the violence in the streets and due to bombing mostly focuses on men being killed. This is also partly a horror novel, and while the symbolism behind the corpse is very strong, the mechanics of how he gains and sustains life are very disturbing. I think I probably found the chapters with Mahmoud the least engaging. Despite the fact that there was probably a good reason for his story being largely separate from the corpse’s antics in Elishva’s neighbourhood, every time the story returned to him it felt jarring and dull.

Anyway, this isn’t an easy topic or an easy book, but as my ARC wasn’t a complete copy (which I didn’t realise until I reached the end), I was hooked enough to buy an eBook version and finish the last few dozen pages on my eReader. This is my first Iraqi novel, and it was a vivid and visceral insight into the impact of the war on a city.

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