Historical fiction novel about family and political upheaval in Taiwan
Content warning: torture, mental illness
I bought this book in keen anticipation of attending one of my favourite book clubs: the Asia Bookroom Book Group. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend on the day, but I nevertheless was very keen to read one of this year’s set books.
“Green Island” by Shawna Yang Ryan is a historical fiction novel set initially in late 1940s Taiwan. Shortly after delivering his fourth child at home, an attentive and energetic young doctor called Dr Tsai is disappeared by Chinese Nationalists after speaking at a community meeting in favour of democracy and Taiwainese representation. Years later, he returns a different man to a family who almost don’t recognise him and a community who shuns him. Nevertheless, he forms a close relationship with his youngest daughter and takes a keen interest in educating her. As the years progress, the unnamed daughter finds herself married and in a comfortable situation in America. However, the tension and surveillance of mid-century Taiwan is not over, and as she is forced to revisit her father’s decisions and ask herself what she would do to protect her family.
This is a well-written and challenging novel that says as much in the scenes we don’t see as it does in the scenes we do. Rarely do people who have been disappeared return home alive, and Dr Tsai’s experience challenges the reader to consider the impossible situation a person is placed in, the extremes they are pushed to through torture and threats, and how far they will go to survive. There was a pivotal scene in the book where Dr Tsai is convinced that he is being followed and kept under surveillance, and his family dismiss his concerns as paranoia. However, it transpires that his instincts were correct and he was being watched, and this experience is repeated for his daughter.
Yang Ryan also explores the idea of betrayal and living with your decisions long after they are made. I also quite liked the juxtaposition between the narrator’s life in Taiwan and her life in America, and how in some ways it seemed so easy for her to slip into this sophisticated, erudite, American lifestyle and yet how difficult it was to escape the reach of Taiwanese politics. Yang Ryan weaves in themes of intergenerational trauma and the impact of tension in households on children. I found that the sessions with the psychiatrist were some of the most illuminating in the book and they leave you wondering what difference access to mental health support and financial security would have made to the narrator and her family back in Taiwan.
However, this was not always an easy novel to read. The focus is certainly on the characters and themes of family and while I certainly could understand the impact of the Martial Law Era, I found it difficult to understand the history of it. This is almost certainly a result of my ignorance, and I think if you are reading this book it would be worth doing a bit of background reading to help understand the broader historical context. Although a key character in the book, I found Jia Bao quite unfathomable and there were a number of tense scenes involving him, the narrator, her husband and Jia Bao’s family that I struggled to make sense of. The narrator has a complicated relationship with him and as a reader, I was left with a disconcerting sense of missed opportunity.
A compelling and tense novel that explores the emotional and moral toll of living under an oppressive regime.
Romance novels set in the Regency era recently adapted into a TV series
Content warning: spousal rape
Unless you have been living under a rock (no shame if you have!), you will have heard of the hit TV series “Bridgerton“. This lush, colourful TV series reimagines the Regency era of the United Kingdom’s history as racially diverse with characters of colour in leading, powerful roles instead of relegated to servitude or slavery. I was looking for my next running book, and I saw that the book that inspired the series was available as an audiobook. I was really interested to see how the original compared to the adaptation. I didn’t realise at the time that the second season was just about to be released. After binge-watching it (ahem, twice), I had a bit of a family health emergency that involved a lot of driving to and from hospital. With so much stress and time in the car, I decided to listen to the second book as well, so today I’ll review both books.
“The Duke and I” by Julia Quinn and narrated by Rosalyn Landor is the first book in the “Bridgerton” series. The story is about Daphne Bridgerton and her eight siblings Anthony, Benedict, Colin, Eloise, Francesca, Gregory and Hyacinth who belong to a wealthy family in England in 1813. The Bridgertons are a tight-knit family and known for their parents’ decision to choose names based on letters of the alphabet corresponding with their birthday. As the sister of a viscount, there is a lot of pressure on Daphne to marry well. However, it is her second season out in society and she has yet to secure interest from any eligible suitors. When she manages to fight off the interest of a very ineligible suitor, she has a chance meeting with Simon, an old friend of her brother Anthony who also happens to be an extremely eligible duke. Simon has sworn never to marry, but the two agree to pretend to be courting to keep the women away from Simon and pique the interest of the bachelors in Daphne. However, once they start spending more time together it becomes harder and harder to distinguish between what is pretend and what is real.
Season 1 of the TV series drew heavily on the main elements of this book, and while not identical, the stories certainly followed a very similar path. I think I actually preferred book Daphne in some ways: the focus was less on her beauty and grace, and rather on her personality and gumption. I felt that apart from his race, the duke’s character was very similar in both the original and the adaptation, and considerable time was spent on his backstory and his ongoing anger and shame about the way he was treated as a small boy. One of the features of the TV series is the ensemble cast and we get to see snippets of many of the Bridgertons and other characters as well as the main romance. In comparison, the book had a much narrower focus, and we barely get a glimpse of the other characters at all. I found the writing of the first book reasonably compelling and Quinn goes into a lot more depth when it comes to some of the more compromising situations the characters find themselves in. I enjoyed Landor’s narration and felt that she did an admirable job distinguishing between the different characters with dynamic voices.
Not to be an English purist, but it became swiftly clear to me that the author, although trying to emulate a Jane Austen-esque tone, is herself an American. Using phrases such as “off of” in place of “off”, saying “spit” in both present and past tense and referring to buttocks as “fanny” (which any Australian is going to raise an eyebrow at” did break the illusion for me a little. The audiobook included a little additional epilogue about the characters much later on, and I’m not entirely sure that it added much to the story.
Without trying to give too much of the plot away, I did want to mention a pretty universal criticism of both the book and the TV series. There is a particular scene in the book where one male character is drunk, and one female character takes advantage of this and has sex with him. It is pretty clear from the story that he was likely unable to give consent and had he been sober would not have consented to the sex. The scene in the book was far less ambiguous than the corresponding scene in the TV series (where the male character is not drunk but is certainly reluctant and feels there has been a considerable betrayal of trust) and it left me feeling very uncomfortable that there was not much remorse or condemnation of this act which fell within the definition of spousal rape. Instead, the reader is left with the sense that the ends justify the means. I felt that had the genders been reversed, it would have been completely unacceptable and while the book was published over 20 years ago, it really isn’t an excuse.
“The Viscount Who Loved Me” by Julia Quinn and narrated by Rosalyn Landor is set in the following year, 1814. This time, the story is about Anthony Bridgerton, a viscount who inherited his father’s title at just 18 years old and notorious rake, who has finally decided to marry. The caveat, however, is that he has decided that the marriage must be business only and that he will absolutely not fall in love. Half-sisters Kate and Edwina Sheffield have come to London to be presented to society in the same year. Dedicated older sister Kate is determined to find her beauty of a younger sister a successful match and Edwina is determined to have Kate’s approval. However, when Edwina catches Anthony’s eye as a sufficiently beautiful and intelligent woman, Kate refuses to consider someone with such a bad reputation as suitable for Edwina, no matter how wealthy and powerful. As Anthony persists in courting Edwina, he and Kate spend more and more time together and soon find that first impressions aren’t always correct.
I found the second book far less engaging. The chemistry between Kate and Anthony was lukewarm at best and what little tension there was resolved very early in the book, with many, many chapters spent on self-realisation rather than any meaningful plot. In fact, the plot was in many ways very similar to the plot of the first book with themes of compromising positions, love growing over time and the man withholding something until he realises his love for the woman. The writing seemed even less inspired, and I lost count of how many times characters “murmured” or “swallowed convulsively”. Quinn goes into absolute minute detail in her scenes, labouring over each character’s thoughts and observations. I felt that she was hamming up the English imitation a little much and wasn’t quite able to capture the humour or irreverence of other American writers writing about England like Connie Willis or Mary Ann Shaffer. Again, there was an extra epilogue in the audiobook that again, didn’t add much.
In contrast, Season 2 of the TV series was absolutely fantastic. Kate was reimagined as Kate Sharma who travels from India with her younger sister to try to find a match in London. The Kate of the TV series, played by Simone Ashley, was haughty, imperious, spirited and stubborn and is as fun as she is frustrating to Anthony. The way culture was woven into the story has attracted a lot of discussion, and questions of authenticity and consistency aside, it certainly added to the richness of the show. Anthony, played by Jonathan Bailey, brought a smouldering intensity to the character that generated white hot sparks against Ashley’s Kate – a testament to his acting skills as he is gay in real life. The pacing of the TV adaptation was exquisite, with the incredible tension between Anthony and Kate maintained throughout the entire series. Similar to the first season, the rest of the characters all have engaging and interactive stories so the romance is not in a vacuum, and I especially enjoyed the Queen’s interactions with Eloise and Edwina.
Although I was looking for something light-hearted during a particularly difficult time and this book certainly met that criteria, I think I will stick to the TV series from now on.
Content warning: post-traumatic stress disorder, war, self-harm, paranormal themes
I saw a trailer for the film adaptation of this book a few years ago, and saw that the novel was by Sarah Waters who I have never read, but who is quite well-known for her lesbian fiction. It looked really well shot with beautiful filmography and an eerie vibe. I tend to prefer to read the book before watching the film, and kept an eye out for the book in second-hand bookstores. However, it wasn’t until a couple of years later I finally saw the book at the Lifeline Bookfair. Hilariously, the film doesn’t appear to be available to stream anywhere online in Australia at the moment, so I still haven’t seen it, but I did finally get a chance to read the book.
“The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters is a gothic novel about Dr Faraday, a general practitioner in his mid-30s who lives in Warwickshire in the West-Midlands, England. Growing up poor, a pivotal memory for Dr Faraday is visiting Hundreds Hall, a grand Georgian house, as a small boy. Now grown, he is called out to Hundreds to attend to a young maid. Although the house has withered since the war, Dr Faraday is just as mesmerised as he was as a boy, and he soon forms a friendship with Mrs Ayres and her adult children Caroline and Roderick. However, it is more than the house that has changed at Hundreds. Initially concerned that the family members are experiencing mental health symptoms, even a rationalist like Dr Faraday begins to find it harder and harder to explain the things that are happening in the house. Increasingly involved, Dr Faraday must ask himself who, or what, is the catalyst.
This is a deeply unsettling book that really seeps into your bones. Waters maintains an exquisite amount of tension throughout the book by giving the reader just enough to spark imagination but not enough to ever result in a satisfying resolution. As the house slowly crumbles so too does the Ayres family. With one misfortune after another, I found myself looking for the culprit. Was it one person, was it another, or was it an inexplicable, sinister force? In the end, nobody seemed trustworthy, not even the narrator Dr Faraday. After the book was finished, I felt like that math lady meme, trying in vain to put all the pieces together. I always feel that a sign of a good book is that you keep thinking about it once it is done, and I definitely kept thinking about this one. Also, even though nothing too overt happens, I found this book genuinely eerie to the point of being actually frightening. At one point, I was reading the book at night while my husband was in the same room playing computer games, and he shouted at something happening on screen, and I just about jumped out of my skin, I was that on edge. I had to abandon reading it that evening and try again the next day during daylight because it was too stressful.
It was such a well-written and well-paced book that there wasn’t really anything negative to say about it except that given it was published in 2009, there were some things that perhaps may not have made it past editors today. One example being Caroline’s elderly Labrador retriever dog, who shares a name with a slur used to refer to Romani people.
A lingering and haunted book that is just the thing if you’re looking for a gothic winter novel.
Spiritual historical fiction novel about multiple generations of an Aboriginal family
Content warning: racism, segregation, sexual assault
I heard about this book when it was first published in 2020, and it was longlisted for the Stella Prize and shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards (Indigenous Writing) and the Indie Book Awards (Debut Fiction). I picked up a copy some time back from the National Library of Australia and I’ve been looking forward to reading it for a while.
“Song of the Crocodile” by Nardi Simpson is a historical fiction novel interwoven with spirituality. The story opens with Margaret, an Aboriginal woman who works at a hospital in a country town called Darmoor laundry for pay and caring for otherwise neglected Aboriginal patients for free. When she loses her job through injustice, it is but one of a long series of injustices that are inflicted upon her family directly and indirectly by the white settlers of Darnmoor including her daughter Celie, her granddaughter Mili and her great-grandsons Paddy and Yarrie. Meanwhile, a sinister and ancient force lurks beneath the town, emboldened by plans to change the course of one of the town’s rivers. It is up to Jakybird, a songman created from a piece of his mother’s hair, to gather together spirits and ancestors to sing the monster Garriya back to where it came from.
This is a beautiful and complex novel that explores the bonds of family, and the violence of colonialism, from every angle. Simpson’s strength is character development and she excels at depicting the irreparable and cumulative damage inflicted upon each generation of the family by white supremacy. The characters themselves were very interesting, and I enjoyed the earthiness of Celie, the otherworldliness of Mili with her reflective eyes and the pain and self-hatred of Paddy counterbalanced by the love of his brother Yarrie. Simpson honours traditional storytelling and it is through Jakybird and the duty he is charged with that we try to make sense of the ongoing and evolving harm perpetuated by colonialism.
A challenging book full of heart and truth-telling and one that stayed with me for quite some time after I finished it.
Queer historical fiction about Prussian immigrants to South Australia
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“Devotion” by Hannah Kent is a historical fiction novel set initially in Prussia in 1836. Hanne, her twin brother and her parents live in an Old Lutheran community. Hanne has always struggled to fit in with the other teenaged girls and the expectations of her mother, and prefers instead to spend time in nature. However when Hanne meets Thea, the daughter of a new family who joined the community, her whole world changes and suddenly she doesn’t feel so alone. When the community flees religious persecution for the colony of South Australia, Hanne and Thea’s bond is put to the ultimate test.
Kent is a beautiful writer and this book shows off her prowess bringing the diverse and untold stories of women in history to life. I found this to be a really relatable story, and Kent expertly captured the mutual love and frustration of mother-daughter relationships and how faith is interwoven in the community’s daily life. The connection between Hanne and Thea was both gentle and electric, and watching their friendship and relationship bloom was the highlight of the book. There were some elements of magic realism and spirituality that were interesting as well, with Hanne’s affinity for listening to nature underpinning and enriching a lot of the events that unfold.
It is a little hard to review this book because something incredibly significant and life-changing happens in the middle of the book which I can’t really mention without spoiling the story. Suffice to say that while it was creatively courageous, I’m not sure it added to the overall plot and I think I might have preferred it if Kent had taken another direction.
A unique story with plenty of depth, plenty of emotion and plenty of heart.
Novel about social isolation and finding your place
Content warning: child neglect, family violence, sexual violence
This book had generated quite a bit of hype following its release and I had a few people recommend it to me. The audiobook met my parameters (not too long) and after making a deal with my husband last year to go running 3 times a week, I have had plenty of opportunity to listen to audiobooks. Around the time I bought this audiobook, I stumbled across this rather damning 2019 article that (in addition to containing spoilers about the book) revisits some historic claims about the author’s ex-husband and his son while working as conservationists in Africa.
“Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens and narrated by Cassandra Campbell is a historical novel about a young girl called Kya who grows up in marshlands in North Carolina in the 1950s. The novel alternates between Kya’s early life and a murder investigation nearly 20 years later. When she is 6 years old, Kya’s mother leaves her and her siblings to the care of her abusive father. One by one her siblings leave, until it is just Kya and her old man together in the shack on the edge of the marsh. For a time, the two of them begin to form a bond and her father quits drinking and takes an interest in teaching her how to fish in his boat. However, when a letter arrives that illiterate Kya is unable to read, things change for the worse and soon Kya is all alone in the marsh. As the years pass, her few interactions with the people of the nearby town Barkley Cove are cruel and exclusionary, and soon she realises that she can only rely on herself. However, when her brother’s old friend Tate strikes up a friendship with her, she is unsure whether she will be able to open her heart and trust someone again. Meanwhile, in the late 1960s, local police investigate the suspected murder of local star footballer Chase.
This is a compelling book full of the pain and loneliness of a young girl abandoned by her family, and the delicate hope she has that someone might be able to love her. Kya’s repeated rejection by her parents, her siblings, her town and her lovers is heartrending. Owens counteracts Kya’s extreme isolation with the solace she draws from the natural environment around her and the very few friendships she cultivates among the locals. I’m not sure if there is a word for nostalgia for something you’ve never experienced (if there is, please comment!) but there is something quite compelling to me reading about natural sciences in the mid-20th century. I think perhaps the romanticism of going to remote places to observe the world around you and contribute to the knowledge of humanity. Anyway, Owens certainly captures the salve the wilderness can be to the modern world. I also really enjoyed Campbell’s narration. There were elements of her style that actually reminded me of Moira Rose from the TV series “Schitt’s Creek“; something about the vowels and the clipped enunciation.
However, there were a lot of elements of this book that I found either trite or unrealistic. One of them was Kya learning to read. I think having read books like “A Fortunate Life“, and reading the far more realistic depiction of illiteracy in “Unsettled Ground“, I wasn’t quite sold on Kya taking to reading and writing so quickly being taught by Tate. Absolutely people can improve and gain literacy as teenagers and adults, but it is not the breeze that Owens makes it out to be and I cannot recommend enough the SBS TV series “Lost for Words“. I also found the murder mystery/court trial portion of the book far less engaging than Kya’s experiences growing up, and I found myself tuning out until the story jumped back in time. I also wasn’t sure about the Jumpin’ narrative arc: Kya’s friendship with the African-American owner of a petrol store (gas station for American readers). It just felt very tropey to me, and like a lot of these types of stories, Jumpin’ seemed to just be there as a plot device to solve problems for Kya in a very one-sided friendship.
A listenable story with lots of points of interest, but with some parts that were either dull, questionable or both.
Dramatic reimagining of Henry Lawson’s short story
Content warning: sexual assault, graphic violence, child removal, racism, family violence
I have been doing quite a lot of running recently, so I am getting through audiobooks a little faster than usual. This has definitely been on my list. We all know the iconic Henry Lawson story about the drover’s wife up against a snake, but I was very interested to try out this gritty retelling.
“The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson” written by and narrated by Leah Purcell is a historical fiction novel that retells Lawson’s famous short story about a drover’s wife left alone with her four children for months at a time in the outback. Molly is pregnant and almost due to give birth, and all she has to protect her and the children is her gun and her dog Alligator. Vulnerable to intruders, natural disasters and poverty, when Aboriginal man Yadaka arrives at her property on the run from the law, she is reluctant to trust him. However, they gradually form a careful bond and Yadaka spends time telling stories to her eldest son Danny who craves a father figure. Meanwhile, Louisa Clintoff has moved from London to the alpine town of Everton with her husband Nate who is to be the new lawman. While they settle in to a completely different lifestyle, Nate’s big task is to solve some local murders. However, what he uncovers is even more shocking than he could ever have expected.
This is a tense, gritty novel that pulls absolutely no punches while re-examining 1800s colonial Australia. While there are plenty of nods to its inspiration, this novel is absolutely its own story and Molly has a voice and a history that shines through more loudly and clearly than ever did in Lawson’s book. Yadaka was a fascinating character as well, with a colourful, complex and painful backstory, he travelled the world while still maintaining a very strong connection with family, country and culture. Purcell’s world is a dangerous one, and in this story snakes are the least of Molly’s problems. The fear and the heartache Molly has for her children’s safety is visceral, and the horrors she encounters as an isolated woman in the bush are all too realistic.
Purcell clearly lives and breathes her story, and she was the perfect choice to narrate it. A seasoned actor herself, she does an excellent job of giving each character a voice and I particularly loved how she portrayed young Danny. While listening to this book, I found myself thinking that it felt like it could have been written for a film. Little did I know that Purcell originally wrote the story for stage and that it has in fact been adapted into a film slated for release next year. This book tackles head-on the treatment of Aboriginal people, and instead of being dismissed as convenient assistants to the white colonial project as Lawson did in his story, Purcell closely examines the many attempts to sever Aboriginal identity and connection to land by settlers. At the end of the audiobook, Purcell shares a bit about the creation of her story and her creative practice as an artist including the consultation with local Aboriginal communities from alpine country in New South Wales as well as her own heritage as a Goa-Gunggari-Wakka Wakka Murri woman.
One thing I did find a bit challenging was the number of narrative perspectives that were in this book. The prose shifts from first person to third person, and there are several characters who take turns in the spotlight. I did find that listening to the audiobook occasionally made it a bit difficult to keep track of who was whom. It is an action-packed book and full of some truly horrifying scenes, a couple of which I missed (with some relief) while out running.
An excellently research story laden with insight, emotion and commentary, I cannot wait to see the film adaptation with Purcell herself in the leading role.
Historical fiction about being stranded in a lifeboat
Content warning: suicide
I picked up this book some time ago from the Lifeline Book Fair for an obvious reason: the beautiful tinted edges. They are such a deep turquoise colour and the cover design itself is really striking. The endsheets have a map showing shipping routes across the Atlantic Ocean. I’m still chugging away at my to-read shelf, and it has been a little while since I have read one of my books with tinted edges, so I chose this one.
“The Lifeboat” by Charlotte Rogan is a historical fiction novel about a young woman called Grace who is on trial with two other women. Weeks earlier, she finds herself on a lifeboat as the ocean liner she and her husband were sailing on is sinking. Before long it becomes clear that the lifeboat is overcrowded and is riding too low in the water. Despite taking turns to bail out the water, the passengers realise that to survive, some will have to be sacrificed. As Grace presents her testimony to the court, the reader is left wondering what truly happened on that boat?
Shipwrecks and being stranded at sea are almost always interesting stories because they place an often large number of people within a very limited amount of space and put them under the enormous pressure of surviving in extreme conditions until they are either rescued or die waiting. The absolute highlight of this book was the perspective. Grace is a deeply enigmatic character who initially seems very innocent but who later lets slips moment of ambition and manipulation that leave the reader questioning exactly how reliable her recollection of the events was. Rogan is a strong writer and the juxtaposition between the crowdedness of the boat and the emptiness of the sky and sea around them was truly unsettling. I felt that Rogan really captured the discomfort and pain that comes along with exposure and starvation and the book felt really realistic and well-researched.
While I thought it was well-written, I’m not quite sure the ending was landed. While I appreciate that Grace was the main character we were concerned with, I didn’t feel connected to any of the other characters except perhaps Mr Hardie. Grace, in true narcissistic form, talked about her interactions with them but not really much about their natures. I would have liked to have known a lot more about Hannah. While I understood that Rogan was angling for subtlety when suggesting what was truly happening on the ocean liner before it sank and how Grace came to be on the boat on the first place, I think a bit more depth or a few more moments of leaning into Grace’s unreliability would have made the ending more hard-hitting.
A well-written and easy book to read that left me with plenty to think about but wishing for a little more punch.
This is the third book in the series, so if you haven’t started it yet check out my reviews of the first and second books. It hasn’t been an easy winter, and I have been a bit distracted from reviewing what with lockdowns etc, but I was so excited for this book pre-ordered this book when it came out at the beginning of August and harangued the poor staff at Dymocks Canberra on release day and they had to open the box for me! I definitely needed a little winter pick-me-up.
Image is of “A Song of Flight” by Juliet Marillier. The paperback book is resting on a timber table next to grey and black feathers and a silver belt buckle. The cover is of a woman in profile in the foreground holding a large knife, gazing across water at a stone tower in the background.
“A Song of Flight” by Juliet Marillier is the third book in the historical fantasy series “The Warrior Bards”. The book begins a short while after the events of the second book, back on Swan Island. Experienced after several successful if challenging missions, Liobhan has been given the new responsibility of helping to train new recruits. Her comrade and lover Dau spends most of his time training recruits on the mainland, and they take what few moments together they can. However, when news arrives that a prince is missing and his bodyguard Galen, Liobhan’s brother, is seriously injured, Liobhan and Dau are dispatched on separate but complementary missions to discover what happened. Meanwhile, Liobhan’s adopted brother Brocc, who is now a father, is having serious difficulties with his wife and queen Eirne in the Otherworld about the increasing presence of the mysterious and dangerous Crow Folk. When he is exiled with a precious burden, Brocc must use all his training and powers to ensure the Crow Folk are not used for evil.
This book had a different tempo than the other two books, and one of the overarching themes in this book is overcoming adversity without violence. Introduced in the earlier books, the Crow Folk make a much bigger appearance in this story and the main characters must untangle myth and culture to get to the heart of why the Crow Folk have come to their land. Whereas the previous book was Liobhan and Dau’s, this time I felt that Brocc’s story really became centre-stage. As I have often said, Marillier is a master of romance so it was really interesting to read her take on a relationship breakdown. Although Brocc has always been accepted completely by his adopted family, Marillier hints tantalisingly at who his biological family may be and what the implications of that may be. Brocc is pushed to his limits in this book and asked how far he would go for the ones he loves.
I enjoyed finally getting to meet the third child of Blackthorn and Grim, Galen, and seeing another side of their family. Blackthorn and Grim make an extended cameo in this book and it was nice to see them in a happy home, regardless of the circumstances. Although not as prominent as the previous book, Liobhan and Dau’s relationship (limited as it is by time, distance and their commitment to Swan Island) is tested in this book. Will they be able to put Swan Island missions before all else, including their love? Although many threads of this story were tied up very tidily, Marillier left enough questions unanswered and doors unclosed to make me wonder whether this truly is the last book, or whether we shall be seeing more of Brocc, Liobhan and Dau in future.
An excellent example of Marillier’s work and a satisfying ending to the trilogy without completely extinguishing the hope that perhaps there may be more to come.
Historical fiction about briefly independent African nation Biafra
Content warning: civil war, starvation, sexual violence
When you have a to-read pile as large as mine, it can be very challenging choosing the next book and I am always looking for inspiration, in any form, to help me make that decision. I had definitely heard of this author and have had one of her books (which I picked up from the Lifeline Book Fair) on my shelf for a really long time. When the author last month posted an essay on her website about virtue signalling on social media, there was some backlash about some views the author had posted previously about transwomen. I am absolutely the last person qualified to weigh into Nigerian LGBTQIA+ discourse, but seeing the author’s name made me realise that her book had been waiting its turn far too long.
“Half of a Yellow Sun” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a historical fiction novel set in 1960s Nigeria. A teenager called Ugwu moves from his small village to work as a houseboy for Odenigbo, a charismatic lecturer who regularly hosts friends and colleagues for academic debates in his home. Allowed to attend school again, Ugwu soaks up the atmosphere and the political rhetoric. Odenigbo’s partner, Olanna, has given up her privileged upbringing to live with him. When the Igbo nation of Biafra secedes from Nigeria, the reality of their idealism is a far cry from the life Olanna is used to. Meanwhile, Olanna’s quiet twin sister Kainene is dating Englishman and aspiring writer Richard. Learning fluent Igbo and becoming swept up in the nationalism of this new nation, Richard is forced to examine the role of white people in African nation-building and how even during an African civil war, an Englishman’s word is worth more than a Biafran.
This is a compelling and challenging novel that uses three diverse, intersecting perspectives to tell the story of the rise and fall of Biafra the nation. Through the eyes of a poor young man, a wealthy woman and a white man, Adichie examines the leadup to and fallout from the civil war and the ensuing food scarcity. Ugwu in particular was a really powerful character who undergoes a lot of character development and who as a young man with the opportunity for significant social mobility finds a lot of opportunity through this historical period. I also thought that it was really interesting to see the sacrifices, financial and social, that Olanna and Odenigbo had to make and how the more doggedly they clung to the idealism of Biafra, the worse their individual circumstances became. Adichie writes unflinchingly about starvation and it was really hard reading about children suffering. I thought it was a courageous narrative choice for Adichie to explore the issue of sexual violence during war from the side of both the victim and the perpetrator. It was also surprisingly hard going reading about roads and borders being closed and not being able to check on family during these times when borders closures are becoming more and more commonplace.
An emotionally and politically complex novel that brings microhistory to microfiction.