Tag 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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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.

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!

The Country Girls Trilogy by Edna O’Brien

The Country Girls Trilogy Title: The Country Girls Trilogy: The Country Girls; The Lonely Girl; Girls in their Married Bliss
Author: Edna O’Brien
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571330539
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 704
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

So, it took me close to three weeks to finish this trilogy and I really wish those three weeks had not ended this soon. After having heard so much about Edna O’Brien and her writing, this was the first time I was reading something by her (one of her most famous works) and I just cannot wait to lay my hands on more works by her. On an off-note, a lot of people ask me, how every read of mine ends up being five stars or four stars for me? Well, that’s because I pick what I know for sure I will love reading. I think more people should do that. Read what they know they will love, irrespective. Anyway, back to the Country Girls Trilogy.

The country girls are Kate (Caithleen Brady) and Baba (Bridget Brennan) and the trilogy as you must have guessed is about them. It is about their stories that begin the regressive setting of a small village in the west of Ireland in the years following World War II. Kate is looking for love. Baba on the other hand, is a survivor. All that they want is a life that isn’t handed to them, but what they make of it. With hopes and dreams and out to conquer it all, they arrive in Dublin and that’s where the story plays out. The bad choices made, the bad sex had, the bad friends, the bleakness of living and in all of this, the resilience and not to forget the expectations they have of themselves and what is thrust upon by them from society.

O’Brien has written this trilogy with a lot of heart and soul. It is wryly funny too and there are pockets of so much warmth that you cannot help but hoot for Kate and Baba. Initially I thought I wasn’t going to feel anything for these characters, however, as the story plays out, they become a part of your everyday tapestry, through the similarities and differences. Sure, you cannot relate to the Ireland of the 60’s and sure it is all very different now, everywhere in the world (is it?) but the slice of life is what is pertinent and stays relevant to a large extent.

“The Country Girls Trilogy” is a read perfect for winter. Something about it which I cannot put my finger on – maybe the melancholy factor or the transition from hope to despair and vice-versa or even the frivolous to the profound swinging of thoughts and emotions, all in all a read that you must not miss out on.

Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo

Welcome to Lagos.jpg Title: Welcome to Lagos
Author: Chibundu Onuzo
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571268955
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 368
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

“Welcome to Lagos” is a delightful read. It is about strangers who meet on a bus – from different walks of life and end up sharing their burdens, their hopes and above all their fears as they enter Lagos. They are runaways from Bayelsa and all in search of a better life. It wouldn’t have mattered where the story of this book would have been set. The beauty of the book lies in its plot and structure. It could have been any city. Onuzo chose a city that is close to her heart – where she grew up – Lagos and it comes through stunningly in this book.

There are moments of joy and then there are those tragic moments in this book that make you want to jump in and hug those characters. To tell them that it will all be okay and things aren’t so bad. The book is political to a very large extent as well, but what sets it apart from the other books on Lagos (fiction and non-fiction) is that there is a lot of soul and heart in this one. Onuzo portrays her hometown’s history and situation lucidly through her characters’ eyes.

Chike, a soldier who has deserted an army unit after being disillusioned by his commanding officer. There is Fineboy, a militant who is more interested in radio and deals than violence. Isoken – a woman who has lost her family and come too close to losing her autonomy. Oma, a wife who is fleeing her husband and Yemi, Chike’s right-hand man who is an illiterate and yet is deeply rooted to his country’s welfare and history. These are the five characters that Onuzo introduces us to and makes the fabric of their lives intricately connected to ours. These renegades prefer to go about their lives quietly and yet as their paths converge with that of an unwilling benefactor, the story turns itself on its head.

There is endurance of spirit in the book. A lot of compassion between characters for each other which I loved the most. Lagos’s vibrancy, cultural exuberance and the tribal traditions are succinctly brought out in Onuzo’s writing. The book is graceful, almost soft in its approach. There is violence for sure, but Onuzo shows us the Nigeria that she belongs to, the Nigeria her characters belong to and how they go about life and love in all the conflict that is within.