Category Archives: Debut Novels

A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum

A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum Title: A Woman Is No Man
Author: Etaf Rum
Publisher: Harper
ISBN: 978-0062699763
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

So here’s the deal with this book: Either people have loved it or didn’t like it at all. I belong to the category of readers who loved it. What the book encompassed for me really was that sometimes you have no choice, no matter how hard you try.

While a part of me, vehemently opposes the idea, there’s a part of me that also agrees. I also believe that circumstances play a major role in deciding what you choose or vice-versa: You choose and your choices create those circumstances. Essentially, it is majorly about the deck of cards life hands you as well, but most people would not consider that.

A Woman Is No Man is a book that is also not easy to read. There will be a point in the book when you will question, challenge, and get angry at the characters for behaving the way they do, but I also think as a reader one must look at the larger context and picture, to be able to separate emotions from the text (sometimes) and look at things more objectively. After all, the story is about one large culture and how it looks at its women and treats them.

It might also seem like a book that you have read in the past, but what makes it different is the voice. Rum’s voice is hers alone and cannot be replicated at all. The book is a mother/daughter story. Through the mother Isra, and her daughter Deya we see the harsh reality of the Palestinian Muslim culture and how it remains unchanged over time, unless challenged, even in modern-day Brooklyn. Some that occurs in the past, and some in the present. There is a lot of domestic violence in the book – in the sense that it is even the focus. So if you think you cannot handle it, then perhaps this read isn’t for you just yet.

At the same time, I was also thinking of the book appealing to a white audience perhaps a lot more because of the content, context, and the uniqueness of culture. However, having said that I firmly believe that this story is universal, even if the so-called “uniqueness” is removed from it. Yes, at times I also felt that the characters were one-dimensional but to my mind, the plot is so good that it doesn’t matter. And yes, Isra might have been one-dimensional but there are a lot of times I could also see her burst through the pages with gumption, but those moments were very rare.

For a debut, Etaf Rum has hit this book out of the park. Fareeda for instance, who is Deya’s grandmother (paternal) is a character that has so many layers to her – that you want more of her and you get that as well. I cannot give away more at this time, but you have to read it to understand what I am talking about.

Having said this, the overall treatment of women in the book is a little hard to stomach. Isra’s mental and physical abuse at the hands of her husband and his family get to you. There were times I just couldn’t bear to turn the page. The book in a way also deals with what value women place on themselves to be able to take a stand. What I loved was the character of Deya (Isra’s daughter). How she views the world differently, and treat situations despite not knowing where she belongs – she wants to experience her Americanness but is bound by the culture of her parents and grandparents.

A Woman is No Man is a book that will definitely make you think about people, more so women who come from different cultures to the US of A in the hope of a better life, and what goes on behind closed doors. It is the kind of book that also grows on you, frustrates you as well (but naturally more so if your culture and point of view is different), will make you question the world around you (perhaps), and also help you find some solace in its pages.

 

Advertisements

Tangerine by Christine Mangan

Tangerine by Christine Mangan
Title: Tangerine
Author: Christine Mangan
Publisher: Ecco, HarperCollins
ISBN: 978-0062686664
Genre: Literary Fiction, Suspense
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 3 Stars

I am a sucker for literature in an exotic setting. Also, when it is a thriller that is set in a location so removed. That was the case with “Tangerine”. It is racy, sparse and written the way a noir novel should be – atmospheric, dark and gritty to the bone. Having said that, there are also portions in the book that seem to drag and not go anywhere, but the prose is just as brilliant.

“Tangerine” is a story about Alice Shipley, who has moved to Tangier with her new husband John. Enter, her once upon a time close friend and roommate Lucy Mason who she least expected to see there, given the circumstances in which the fallout occurred. Things but of course go haywire with Lucy’s presence. She is as usual controlling. Alice sees herself dependent on her a lot more. One fine day John suddenly disappears and Alice finds herself questioning everything and everyone around her.

This is the plot of the book. Sure there is more, but I am not going to give any spoilers. The writing has its moments of brilliance and then sometimes you think it isn’t going anywhere, but it redeems itself right back. Mangan creates and builds on an entirely new Tangier in tandem with where the story is set. It is that of the mind – place is again of great importance in Alice’s mind and even Lucy for that matter, which shines through the book.

“Tangirine” when I started reading it felt like just another book that I had read in the past. Thakfully, it wasn’t that. You need to give it a chance past fifty pages for sure for the book to grow on you. It is the kind of book that builds on everything rather slowly, but once it does, it sure does make an impression and stays.

 

 

A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

A Place For Us Title: A Place For Us
Author: Fatima Farheen Mirza
Publisher: SJP for Hogarth
ISBN: 978-1524763558
Genre: Literary Fiction, Family Life
Pages: 400
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

So, here it is. I read this book almost in one sitting. That’s right! There was something about it that compelled me to and it isn’t that I didn’t savour the book because I read it in one sitting. It is the kind of book that moved fast and yet made you think so much about what was going on.

“A Place For Us” is about a family trying to make sense of what is and is not in a different land. It is an Indian-Muslim family who has come to America and have made it home. Rafiq and Layla are parents of Hadia, Huda and Amar. The story opens with Hadia’s wedding, where Amar appears after many years of being estranged with his father. What happened and what will happen next makes the story what it is.

This is of course just the plot very loosely put as I do not want to give away anything, but “A Place for Us” is so much more than family drama or a family saga, so to speak. Mirza going back and forth into the novel (the timelines might get confusing, so pay attention when you are reading), speaks of identity, immigrants, nationality, what it means to be a Muslim woman in a first-world country, and a husband, father and son. At times I felt the story wasn’t going anywhere but when it did, it knocked my socks off!

The sections that describe the siblings’ relationships were my favourite. I could relate to them the most. Hadia’s love and resentment toward Amar (for being the coddled child by their mother), Huda’s indifference toward family dynamics and yet somewhere the need to be accepted by Hadia and Amar and Amar’s sense of loss (terrifying by the way).

“A Place for Us” is a book that is so all encompassing that you might even feel that more was needed when you reach the end . It took eight years for Fatima Farheen Mirza to write this book and you can understand why only when you read it. The landscape of emotions and the way the characters shift territory when it comes to matters of the heart is beautifully told through moving prose. Mirza in a very subtle manner gets into the skin of her characters, exposing their wounds, scars, warts and all. No one is perfect and no one is expected to be. I was in parts greatly bothered by Rafiq, but that also somehow found its way to redemption in the last one-third part of the book.

“A Place for Us” rightly so is a debut you should not miss out on. It will be difficult to get into it initially but I recommend you persist, because it will be worth it. A debut that doesn’t read like a debut at all. A book that is more than what meets the eye. Do read it, whenever you can.

 

 

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Title: Homegoing
Author: Yaa Gyasi
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-1101947135
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

There are books you read that make you want to be a better person, they make your heart sing and leave you breathless because of their sheer beauty. There are books that break your heart, they keep stabbing at it with a curved blunt knife and you are in pain and you know that, but the magic of words doesn’t make you stop turning the pages. There are also books that do all of this – books that have the power to do it all, so to say and “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi (I still cannot believe that this is a debut novel) is one such book.

I love and enjoy books about families on a grand scale – something about them that makes you relate to what is going on and not so much – perhaps which is what makes it so desirable and not so. “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi is about two sisters who never meet during the book. One grows up in a sort of prosperous family where she is promised in marriage to a powerful man and the other grows up in a tribe where she is captured and caught into slavery. This action takes place in Ghana – more exacting would be in the coastal region. The book is about the sisters of course but also about their children and grand-children and great grandchildren and it is marvelous to see Gyasi loop through all these characters and give them a logical start, beginning and end every single time with every single chapter.

At given point I didn’t think the writing was overwhelming because of the several sub-plots. In fact, if anything, I found Gyasi’s writing to be quite simple, empathetic and most easy to read. The trials and tribulations of these sisters and their progeny makes you think of what goes on in this world as we live safe, protected lives. The narrative switches back and forth between each generation of the sister’s family lines and to me that was a lovely way to link stories of families and to know of the songs and tales passed down from one generation to the next.

Yaa Gyasi projects the conflict of the Asantes and Fantes – the tribes of Ghana and the readers will be pulled into their lives, customs and how one of them even work with the British to sell them slaves. Honestly, it didn’t even surprise me given what some people go through in India at the hands of their so-called “community people”. I felt a little cheated in the last couple of chapters and wished there was more to the characters and their lives – but I guess those can be overlooked.

“Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi is a novel that will take your breath away. It is meshed intricately with people across generations, timelines, emotions, men and women who are stuck with decisions they make and the ones that are forced on them. Most of all, the book is about what it takes to be human above everything else and what it really takes to make it through all the pain and hardship.

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

What Belongs To You by Garth Greenwell Title: What Belongs to You
Author: Garth Greenwell
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-1447280514
Genre: Literary fiction, LGBTQ Fiction
Pages: 204
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Love is a mystery. I have still not been able to figure it out and more so, know what role I play in its larger plan for me, if it does have any plan laid out for me that is. I had been putting off reading “What Belongs to You” by Garth Greenwell for the longest time. I know why. Let me share it with you. It is because in my head it was about unrequited love (which it is) and about disease (again it is about that), but above all it was about selfish love mostly and I had been through it. I thought I would read it and it will all come back to me, haunting me all over again, but it did not. I read the book and all I can say with utmost confidence is that you must read it – everyone must. Though it is about gay love, but love is love after all and hence this book will make that impact felt deeply with readers who have loved or aspire to fall in love.

“What Belongs to You” is about a nameless narrator – an American male, whose name and age is not mentioned, teaching at an institute in Sofia – the capital city of Bulgaria and his encounter with a local rent boy, Mitko. The book is about the narrator’s love and desire for Mitko. I wish I could say the book is just about that and leave it at that – but I can’t do that, because it wouldn’t do justice to the book. “What Belongs to You” is a landscape of desire, which is undone for its characters. Their loves are undone. Their desires do not see the light of day and how emotional and monetary exchanges build or rather feed on people’s weaknesses.

The book reads like a confession – the narrator speaks of his encounter with Mitko one fine day at the National Palace of Culture in Sofia and this is how the book begins. Lust is on the fore of this highly emotional roller-coaster of a ride novel. Greenwell somehow eases the reader into the first encounter between the narrator and rent boy. They are obviously to meet on more than one occasion – money will exchange hands in place of sexual favors and this is how the world is – there is really no awkwardness from Mitko’s side as this is what he does for a living, but one can sense the narrator’s discomfort and how he is pulled apart by his love for Mitko (possessive, envious, the kind of love we have all been through) and his past – his relationship with his father as he came out, the boy he loved (K) and how all he wanted was his father to accept and love him for who he was. Greenwell manages this with great tenderness and tact and this was the part of the novel, where I actually cried. I could relate to the dynamics as it would have played out with my father, which it never did and this continues to be one of my biggest regrets.

The narrator leaves Mitko many times in the course of the book. He realizes that perhaps Mitko at some point is toxic and he needs to find his own, because Mitko all said and done will never love him.

“As I had cause to think before, of how helpless desire is outside its little theatre of heat, how ridiculous it becomes the moment it isn’t welcomed, even if the welcome is contrived”

The third and final part of the book is about Mitko’s return – and the part which is most gut-wrenching as it is about disease and how the two cope with it in their own way. The narrator by now has a boyfriend R and the relationship dynamics there I thought were rushed a little. Having said that, what struck me at this point was the xenophobia which was subtly displayed as the narrator goes from clinic to clinic getting tests done. At the same time, the concept of fear was delicately probed time and again and yet amidst all of this is the unrequited love and desire that hangs in the balance. Greenwell never lets you forget for once that the book is about people who love, lose, falter, make terrible decisions, try and become better people in all probability and have no one to go to but themselves.

“What Belongs to You” to me was one of the highlight novels I’ve read this year. It definitely features in my Top 10 reads of the year so far and all I can say is that you have to go and pick up this novel – read it at leisure, soak in the emotions and pray and hope that you aren’t caught weeping uncontrollably.