Category Archives: historical fiction

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead Title: The Nickel Boys
Author: Colson Whitehead
Publisher: Fleet Books, Hachette
ISBN: 9780708899434
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 2.5 stars

There are some books you wish you love when you read them. You want to love them with all your heart and soul. The Nickel Boys was one such book for me. I quite enjoyed and liked The Underground Railroad and I wanted more out of The Nickel Boys. I did. I was expecting a lot – to be emotionally turned inside-out by the end of the read, which sadly did not happen to me at all.

When any book is such a struggle to read and get through, you know you will never revisit it or recommend it. The Nickel Boys sadly is that book for me this year.

The book starts off with great promise. The first part of the book is written with great insight, sensitivity, and empathy throughout. It is about Elwood Curtis and his life out of the juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy and inside of it. For a black teenager in the early 60s, all it takes is one mistake to destroy his future. The Nickel Academy is a hellish reform school, who has the outer façade of creating moral and upright citizens of delinquents who have lost their way. Beneath all of this, is a world of torture, discrimination, and instances that end in death.

Elwood’s grandmother Harriet, his dreams, his ambitions, and his idea of a free world are all left behind when he enters The Nickel Academy by no fault of his. Whitehead’s inspiration of the Nickel Academy came from the infamous Dozier school that made headlines as fake graveyards were discovered on the closed school’s grounds.

The Nickel Boys is mainly set outside of the school – part one and part three at that. While a lot is also set in it, as you can read in part two, as a reader I was left underwhelmed and wanting more. Also, Elwood suddenly is thrown in a world where he meets several characters (but naturally) and yet I could feel nothing for them. I wanted to. I so wanted to be immersed in this book, but I just couldn’t. For instance, Turner (one of the boys Elwood befriends) was one such character that wasn’t explored enough in my opinion. The constant battle of his pessimism and Elwood’s optimism is the only thing that stayed (beautifully done at that).

I understood the book – the nuances, the being an accomplice to what was going on inside the house for every boy once you walked into its doors to even the question of loyalty in a place like The Nickel Academy. Yet, with all its nuances and sometimes brilliant prose, I was left wanting more. The threads somehow didn’t connect and by the time I reached Part Three, I was drained of any comprehension to move on with the read. There is also no iota of character development. The book could’ve been longer and perhaps more time spent in letting us know about the characters and their lives, which sadly did not happen.

And yes, the dignity of human life, the assertion of black lives mattering, the understanding of injustices, and more than anything else persistence of the human spirit comes across in the book in bits and pieces, but I wish it was held together strongly. The book falters and stumbles, without any direction. The Nickel Boys was one book I was waiting to read with great anticipation. I wish I had enjoyed it with similar enthusiasm.

 

 

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The Heavens by Sandra Newman

The Heavens by Sandra Newman Title: The Heavens
Author: Sandra Newman
Publisher: Grove Press
ISBN: 978-0802129024
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

The Heavens is the kind of book that gets under your skin only if you allow it to. In the sense that you have to be prepared for it, read it slowly, take in what Newman has to offer, and then be enthralled by its worlds, characters, and their lives. I don’t even know how to categorize this book – what does one call it? Historical fiction? Contemporary? Fantasy? Come to think of it, I shall not call it anything but a novel that will charm, beguile, and leave you a little bit breathless.

I hadn’t realized Sandra Newman had written more books before reading this one. So, long story short: The Heavens is about the power of dreams and what they can do to your world. It is the year 2000. Ben (Debendranath – yes, read the book to find out more) meets Kate and they fall in love. Kate loves love. Ben loves Kate.

Then there is the question of Kate’s dreams that she’s been having since childhood. The dreams where she lives a second life as Emilia – the mistress of a nobleman in Elizabethan England. But what happens when dreams impact reality? Kate begins to understand that her actions in her dreams alter her reality on waking up. Incidents that she doesn’t remember anymore, people she hasn’t heard of, neighbourhoods that have sprung up on their own, and something more is at play which she has to stop, or so she thinks.

In all of this is Ben – always wondering what’s going on with his partner. From a family with its own demons, all he wants is a simple life, and tries very hard to understand Kate and her second life as Emilia. And but of course you have to read the book to find out what happens next – what occurs and what doesn’t. In all of this, Newman introduces their friends – Sabine – free-spirited, gossipy, and absolutely silly (at least to me), Oksana (you just have to read about her), Martin, and José to name a few. The reason I speak of them is they are as integral to the story as Ben and Kate.

Newman’s writing reminded me of Alain de Botton’s style to begin with, till I got used to her voice and it was only her writing that mattered. Her prose strikes you in so many places – the struggle of Kate and whether or not she is losing her mind. Newman makes you believe in both worlds equally – in both characters – Kate and Emilia. Not for once did they strike me as the same person, till of course dreams and reality merged.

There is also a surprise element of who she meets in the year of the plague in England. The technicalities of time travel are spot-on – they never bog you down as a reader. In fact, you want to know more about that era and what transpired. What I loved the most is that Newman gets to the point. There is brevity in its 272 pages and no rambling at all.

The Heavens could also not be for all. It worked for me on several levels – of love, friendship, dreams, and what may come in the future. But it may not work for you if you are the sort of reader who wants to find meaning and purpose in everything you read. Sandra Newman is one author whose works I will be devouring a lot more.

 

Interview with Sikeena Karmali

If you have to perhaps read historic fiction, and as we all know there are only two months left in the year, then you should read Sikeena Karmali’s, The Mulberry Courtesan. I read it earlier this year and absolutely loved it. It is a story of a courtesan in the last court of the Mughal Empire, that of Bahadur Shah Zafar. Karmali has written the book with great skill, passion, and accuracy. In my opinion, everyone must read this book because of the language and the plot. I got a chance to interview her via mail, and here goes:

What inspired you to write a historical fiction novel, that too set in 1857? What drew you toward that time? 

The novel was actually very much inspired by a visit to the Humayun’s Tomb and Gardens complex in 2003 – before it was restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. At that time I was living in Uzbekistan, directing a human rights project. I had just visited Ferghana – the birthplace of Babur and Samarqand and Bukhara are both also in Uzbekistan so the Central Asian/Timurid/Mughal civilization was already playing in my imagination but for some reason I was not really expecting to find that in India so when I visited Humayun’s Tomb I was kind of blown away at how beautifully this heritage had married with the civilization of the Indian subcontinent to create this breath-taking architecture. So I wanted to try to capture some of that.

I’ve also always been fascinated by the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 – Ghadr. It was actually the first serious challenge that the British East India company faced by the people it had colonized.

Bahadur Shah Zafar thankfully isn’t made a caricature of in the book. What kind of research went into ensuring that more facets of his personality came to light? How did you manage to translate that or incorporate it in the book?

I did a lot of research and I read his poetry. I visited the National Archives in Delhi where I also found a lot of information. He impressed me and I tried to understand him as a poet and a mystic rather than a ruler.

Laale is headstrong, independent, and yet has to adhere to the societal constructs of that time and age. What were the courtesans like in that period?

It is certainly true that there were societal constructs for women at that time, as there are today – however they are not always what we imagine them to be. Courtesans were often quite empowered as women. They were educated and erudite, they moved and circled in public spaces, often in male domains where they would have to hold their own among Nawabs and Mirzas. They were also not merely sexual slaves – many courtesans were respected women who came to wield a fair amount of power at court. Beghum Samru for example was a nautch girl who ended up becoming the head of a professionally trained army. Or Mah Laqa Chanda who became the first Urdu poetess and whose Divan is currently at the British Library in London.

How is Laale different and how was it like to place her in around 160 years ago, though she could very well fit in today’s time and age? 

It is funny you should ask that because The Mulberry Courtesan was originally about two women Laale and a contemporary women who is like her mirror or soul mate. So that contemporary story is now going to be The Mulberry Courtesan Book Two.

Image result for sikeena karmali

The book moves between multiple nations and times. How easy or difficult was it to write about that? 

That is actually how the book unfolded so it’s how I wrote it. At the time that much of the book was written, I used to travel quite a lot so it didn’t feel unusual for me.

How is it to bring the interactions to life in a historical novel, given the context and plot? How does that work? Is it any different from say setting the novel in the 21st century?

I’m an avid student of history so it’s quite normal for me to be inhabiting another century in my imagination while I go about my daily existence in the 21st century. I think with historical fiction writing you really have to take the time to set the scene, to illustrate the details that will really transport your reader to another time and place.

Your top 5 historical fiction novels 

In no particular order:

The Moor’s Last Sigh – Salman Rushdie
Bel Canto – Ann Patchett
Burnt Shadows – Kamila Shamsie
Beloved – Toni Morrison
Song of the Assassin – M.G. Vasanji
My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk

What are you currently reading? 

I have just finished Daughters of the Sun by Ira Mukhtoy and I am in the middle of Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien which is really lyrical and beautifully written.

You can buy the book here: 

https://amzn.to/2PCXUIt

 

 

The Empty Room by Sadia Abbas

91NWARscW6L Title: The Empty Room
Author: Sadia Abbas
Publisher: Zubaan Books
ISBN: 978-9385932267
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Because more stories such as this one need to be told. Stories where the political and personal merge and the voice stands out – being original, fearless and saying it like she intends to. I also most certainly have come to believe that stories of women are best told by women (you can refute me on this one but it is my opinion nonetheless). The story of Tahira in 1970s Karachi is told beautifully by Sadia Abbas. Through a work of fiction, you can sense the tone and emotions that are so real, you are transported back in time. As a reader, I was way too invested in this book and just wanted to see Tahira happy, no matter what.

Like I said, the novel is set in the 70s of Karachi. Tahira is married off quite quickly to someone she doesn’t know and her life falls apart as quickly. She is a talented painter who isn’t allowed to paint. Her marriage is nothing but a trap and she has no voice left. She was always the free one at her parents house – interacting, debating, discussing with her brother Waseem and his friends. She misses all that and comes to know one fine day that her brother and his friends are arrested and caught up in the regressive regime’s line of fire. Tahira’s world is shattered. She doesn’t know what to do and how to express herself anymore till she goes back to painting. All her paintings have the same title, “The Empty Room”.

“The Empty Room” is rich, luxuriant and more than anything else soothing in so many ways. I often found myself weeping and smiling at the same time while reading this book. The nation is new. The bride is new. Her roles are new. There is the rebel inside her which refuses to succumb and Abbas through her succinct prose has brought out all the elements and joined them quite cleverly. Yet, there are so many places where the book just is – it doesn’t try to be anything but show a mirror of times gone by and strangely you can see those times even today around you. They haven’t gone anywhere. The regressiveness exists, doesn’t matter which nation.

Abbas makes Pakistan come alive in this book. The streets, the places, the houses – the very atmosphere that is heavy and sometimes claustrophobic in Tahira’s world is described brilliantly. “The Empty Room” is just an introspective book with a lot of heart, gumption and the idea and hope that things will change for the better. Read it.

Disoriental by Négar Djavadi. Translated from the French by Tina Kover

Disoriental by Négar Djavadi Title: Disoriental
Author: Négar Djavadi
Translated from the French by Tina Kover
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1609454517
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

At the very onset, let me tell you that “Disoriental” is not an easy book to read. I think most literary fiction isn’t. You have to give the genre some time to grow on you and once it does, there is no looking back. Having said that, the reading experience differs with every book.

The thing with “Disoriental” is that (and to me, this was important while reading it) it is written in French (the adopted country of the author) and not in the author’s native language Farsi. This in itself says so much about the book and its progression.

The readers are in for a treat when it comes to this book. From a modern-day fertility clinic, we are transported to modern Iranian culture and in the bargain the history of a country. Might I add that there are magic realism elements as well that take your breath away, even if you have read Márquez or Rushdie. Kimiâ Sadr fled Iran with her mother and sisters to join her father in France, at the tender age of ten. She is now twenty-five, in a fertility clinic waiting for her turn and memories come rushing by.

I love how Djavadi has integrated the personal and the political. It is as if they are intertwined and to a very large extent maybe they are. The past, present, and future of the country of birth will somehow in so many ways, will always be linked to ours, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. The Sadrs are a flamboyant lot – from Kimiâ’s formidable great-grandfather to her father and uncles. Not to forget her mother from whom she was greatly inspired.

“Disoriental” besides being a book on identity, exile, and homelessness, is also a book on a family in the midst of political upheaval and regime change. Iran is described on point (not that I have been there but can figure, only going by movies I have watched and other books I have read) and there is mention of “THE EVENT” of March 13, 1994, which is spoken about throughout the book and revealed with a feeling of horror toward the end.

The thing also about “Disoriental” is that it feels as though it has come from a very personal space, almost autobiographical and maybe it is. Family looms large in the narrative and plays along beautifully alongside, combining the personal and the political. Also, not to forget the sexual. Kimiâ’s sexual identity is also explored which I thought was much needed.

“Disoriental” is about distances and perhaps also about the ones we do not sometimes want to traverse. It is about alienation and somehow feeling grounded wherever you are, in a very strange manner. The tone and voice of the narration keep changing in the book, which to me made it jumpy and out of the flow. Having said that, it was needed to give background about characters and the place they came from. There are multiple journeys in one book – they run parallelly to each other and the author uses deep, lyrical sentences that give it the much-needed elegance. At the same time, to understand that all of this is translated into English makes one be in awe of Tina Kover, given how dense the book is.

There is a lot of thread of memory – through objects, people, place and time (you will keep reading about THE EVENT a lot by the way), lending it the Proustian quality (I wasn’t surprised at all). All I can say is that “Disoriental” is a book that has so much to offer, and does it in a lot of ways and stupendously at that.