Category Archives: Literary Fiction

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar Title: The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock
Author: Imogen Hermes Gowar
Publisher: Harvill Secker, Random House
ISBN: 978-1911215721
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical
Pages: 496
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

The year is 1785 and merchant Jonah Hancock has to cope with the tragic news that one of his captains has sold his ship in exchange for a mermaid. Sounds intriguing, isn’t it? I was sold at this premise. But wait a minute. There is more to this story which is more fascinating to me. The side story of Angelica Neal that quickly comes to fore. Neal is London’s most beautiful courtesan who wants to marry rich and secure a future for herself. And who better than Mr. Hancock who has a mermaid to be put on display and make easy money? And all of this is possible through Mrs. Chappell’s brothel (there is more to what meets the eye really) and given she has a soft spot (or so it seems) for Angelica.

Phew! That is not it by the way. There is a lot more going on in the book and let me tell you, that despite its size (500 pages), this is one racy romp of a read. There is a lot of decadence in this book (which I love by the way), there is misery, power, envy and fantasy. If not for the mermaid angle, I would classify this book purely as historic fiction, but let the two merge and work its magic on the reader. Also, might I add the magic of London (and its claustrophobia, its stench, lecherous men and grotesque women) is brought out beautifully by Gowar.

Angelica Neal’s character is so strong that she overpowers everyone else (in some bits and parts) and in a very good way because you’d want her to appear more as the book progresses. There is also a surprise in the form of Polly but I won’t ruin it for you by talking about her. You might want to discover her yourself.

“The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock” is set in a vivid and uproarious time. It is the kind of book that must be read again and more than anything for its female characters that stand out and well-deservedly at that. Mrs. Chappell, Angelica and Polly (there is also Mr. Hancock’s niece who makes a brief appearance) are the heroes of this book in all honesty. This is the kind of book that will keep you up all night and you wouldn’t want it any other way. “The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock” is all rolled into one – a comfort read (yes, at most times) and a thriller, literary fiction with the much-needed historic setting.

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The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments by Ann Quin

The Unmapped Country Title: The Unmapped Country: Stories & Fragments
Author: Ann Quin
Publisher: And Other Stories
ISBN: 978-1911508144
Genre: Short Stories, Non-Fiction, Fragments
Pages: 178
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I think my heart skips a beat when I discover a new author. The same happened when I heard of Ann Quin and there was something about her that drew me instantly to wanting to read her. Ann Quin’s work is unlike anything I have read before. I know this is said of a lot of writers in this time and age, but in the case of Quin it couldn’t hold truer. If you are in the mood to read something experimental, mind-boggling and also the kind of writing that makes you emotional, then please read “The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments” by Ann Quin.

Quin does not only break form in her stories and fragments but also goes over the edge in terms of plot. Her writing leaves you with this heaviness in the soul and is ironically also liberating. For instance, here I was reading, the titular incomplete novel (almost 50 pages or so) and I found myself crying and strangely enough smiling (since the story is that of a psychiatric collapse set in an institution quite similar to the ones Quin attended in her troubled years). Her skills of telling a story are crackling and this is a good place to start.

There are then staccato pieces in the book: “Never Trust a Man Who Bathes with His Fingernails” and “Ghostworm” – which are also very vague and make sense when read over and over again. Quin’s pieces are like wine I suppose or an exotic cuisine that one grows to like or love or not. There cannot be in-between emotion when it comes to her writing (or so I think).

There is this sense of unease, this constant shuffling from one reality to another that all-pervades this collection of stories and fragments. Reading this collection reminded me of the urgency of Virginia Woolf, the resplendency of Elizabeth Bowen and the sense of loneliness of Katherine Mansfield. Not that I am comparing (because really Quin cannot be compared), I am just providing a reference or two. All said and done, I know for one that I will be looking out for more of her works (she left this world too soon) and cherish what she had to offer.

Heart Spring Mountain by Robin MacArthur

Heart Spring Mountain by Robin MacArthur Title: Heart Spring Mountain
Author: Robin MacArthur
Publisher: Ecco
ISBN: 978-0062444424
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 368
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

What is home and what does it mean to you? For the longest time, I have asked myself these questions and gotten nowhere with knowing the answer. Maybe I don’t want to anymore. The idea of home if ever, is just people and memories, I suppose. The place you perhaps can go back to every time you feel out and down in the big, bad world. Isn’t that home?

“Heart Spring Mountain” is to be read with all this in mind but at the same time, it demands to be read without judgment. Robin MacArthur’s book is full of sub-plots and characters that are easy to judge and bracket and yet we forget – the terrain of the human heart is constantly changing. There is no room forjudgment​t. It is what it is.

August 2011. Tropical Storm Irene has wreaked havoc on Vermont. Vale receives a call in New Orleans about her mother Bonnie’s disappearance. Vale has long been estranged from Bonnie and yet decides to go home in search of her. Vale then rediscovers herself and the relationships she ran away from – the three generations of women who live on Heart Spring Mountain – the land that belonged to her forefather, leading her to a secret that she could never think of.

So here’s the deal with Heart Spring Mountain: You might get confused initially, given multiple narratives (that happens to me quite a lot) but once you do manage to sink your teeth into the book (which will happen very soon given the prose of MacArthur that shines and breathes life on almost every page), reading this book is a joyride.

While Vale is one of the central characters, and I hoped to have read more of her, I nonetheless enjoyed the different narratives and how lives merge at the end of it all. The pull of the land is strong on this book and to me it is all about the stories – where we grow up, the same place where we depart from and how it all comes back together in some way or another – we then learn to find our way back.
“Heart Spring Mountain” is emotional. It isn’t sentimental. MacArthur captures the rural lay of the land stunningly and adds so many moments of joy and tenderness that everything seems right with the world. It is also quite hard to imagine that it is a debut. Read it one Sunday afternoon and be mesmerized.

Season of Crimson Blossoms by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim

Season-of-Crimson-Blossoms Title: Season of Crimson Blossoms
Author: Abubakar Adam Ibrahim
Publisher: Speaking Tiger International Fiction
ISBN: 978-9386702418
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 296
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

“Season of Crimson Blossoms” is the kind of book that grows on you. As I started reading it, it did not do much. But I was about fifty pages in and was completely taken in by its language, the characters, and the storyline. The book is about an older woman’s sexuality and it had me rooting​ for her like no one else in literature in recent times. The book then as it should be being unapologetic, and non-western and shines as a post-colonial Nigerian work of fiction.

Binta is a now a widow. She is fifty-five years old and has always lived life colouring in between the lines and not exploring enough. She doesn’t know what it means to live – to truly experience life for what it is. Her firstborn​ dies and grief engulfs her. Reza, on the other hand,​ is a thug and a gang member and deals in drugs. He is only twenty-six and his mother has abandoned him. They both meet. She is old enough to be his grandmother. And yet, there is something which neither of them can resist and romance blossoms between the two, despite all odds – despite political unrest, religious upheaval and the basic difference between their ages and what the world might have to say.

The story is non-judgmental and please as a reader, I urge you to not judge at all while reading it. The tone is fresh, unlike any other Nigerian writer I have read and for me, that worked like a charm. Ibrahim writes with such ease. Nothing is hidden. All emotions are out there – simmering from page one and then before you know it, you are engulfed in them, which works wonders for this book. The Nigerian political structure and social frameworkare​s brilliantly depicted through Binta and Reza and the moments they share.

“Season of Crimson Blossoms” will shock you, surprise you, make you empathize to the bone, make you mad sometimes, but above all will make you see love for what it is – just love.

New Boy: Othello Retold by Tracy Chevalier

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier Title: New Boy: Othello Retold
Author: Tracy Chevalier
Publisher: Penguin Random House UK
Imprint: Hogarth Shakespeare
ISBN: 978-1781090329
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 192
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

I was skeptical about reading this one, only because Othello and Macbeth are my favourite Shakespeare plays and in my head, no one can adapt them. I am sure it has been done several times, but they still don’t hold a candle to the original. Hence, the skepticism.

At the same time, while I thought the book started off promisingly, something didn’t quite fit in. There was this constant nagging thought at the back of my head which I couldn’t place. Till I did and which I will speak about a little later.

“New Boy” is a classic circadian novel – a novel that takes place through a day. Maybe that is the reason it is short and couldn’t have been any longer than this. Also, it is the perfect book to read in today’s times – it is sad I say this, because it is about race and alienation in the 70s and we are in 2018. Something should have changed. We think some things have, but they haven’t. Racial discrimination is as real as it was then and we have only see it grow in the last couple of years.

Anyway, back to the book. “New Boy” is Othello retold. The setting: A private junior high-school and as the title suggests, a new boy Osei – straight from Ghana – a diplomat’s son nonetheless (so black and privileged) enters a school and a white girl, Dee (Desdemona) falls for him and that’s when the school bully Ian (Iago, of course) has to do something to tear them apart. It is the 70s and racial discrimination is at its height.

Chevalier gets references and slurs bang on – so real that I had to keep the book down a couple of times before picking it up again and also because many a times, the conversations didn’t seem to be had between eleven-year olds till I stopped thinking of it this way and started enjoying the story.

The book takes place in a day – at the beginning of a school day and finishes at the end. We all know how this one is going to play out. I couldn’t read further for the longest time, because I didn’t want the tragedy to strike. One would even think that the tragedy cannot be as gruesome as it has been depicted in other adaptations, for instance, Omkara but Chevalier packs a punch and how! Her interpretation of Iago is just as crafty (even more and scarier because it is projected on to a child) and then there is her Othello, who is just as gullible and prone to first-day of school politics.

“New Boy” was a read that I warmed to. I didn’t like it initially. I waited for it to grow on me and it did. It is the kind of book that cannot be rushed with either. You have to take it all in in one big gulp and wait for it to be digested before reading some more of it. Pick it up!