In these six exquisitely crafted short stories, Canadian playwright Piatigorsky brings to life a moment in the childhood - or adolescence - of six inf...moreIn these six exquisitely crafted short stories, Canadian playwright Piatigorsky brings to life a moment in the childhood - or adolescence - of six infamous dictators. These aren't necessarily pivotal moments, or the moment when they decided, I know, I'm going to be a ruthless, bloody dictator when I grow up! Nothing so trite or ridiculous. Rather, they are moments that could easily be overlooked as everyday, mundane and typical, even, yet they are fascinating character studies highlighting childhood influences and the beginnings of a train of thought that will later have such devastating affect.
In "Tea is Better Than Pepsi", we meet a teenaged Idi Amin in 1946, who was president of Uganda from 1971 to 1979. We meet him when he was working as an assistant cook for the King's African Rifles (a British colonial regiment, sending African soldiers to Burma and other places). A tall, broad-shouldered lad, he recalls living with his mother, Assa Aatta, an exiled Lugbara sorcerer, and the time when he was ten that she failed to cure a crazy woman who wore a skirt made of Pepsi bottles. Assa Aatta lost her esteemed reputation, and the army threw them out of the barracks, where they lived. Idi never forgave her for it, and saw her as a fraud ever after. On this day, though, he seizes a chance to prove himself and be recruited into the KAR - the beginning of his path to becoming Commander of the Ugandan army.
The second story, "A Plaything for the King's Superfluous Wives", introduces us to fourteen-year-old Saloth Sâr Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge and dictator of Cambodia, in 1939. His sister, Roeung, works with the king's dancers, all minor wives who live in the royal compound, and he has a crush on one of them, Chanlina. The guards at the gate recognise him, and on the pretext of meeting his sister, Sâr makes his way to Chanlina's home, which she shares with two other young women and a baby. They're older than him, and converge on him like a toy, taking advantage of his pubescent hormones and ignorance.
In "The Consummation", set in 1908, fifteen-year-old Mao Tse-Tung is fighting with his father over his arranged marriage with woman Luo. A bookish, lazy boy, Tse-Tung capitulates only when his mother speaks to him, but he balks at consummating the marriage, depressed by woman Luo's lack of life and vacant look and his own fear of turning into his callous and violent father. He continues to struggle with notions of duty and familial respect as laid out by Confucius, and his fantasies of joining the bandits and having the kind of adventures his fictional heroes have. Finally, he has no chance of having a real marriage with woman Luo, when his father does what he failed to do.
The fourth story, "Lado's Disciple", introduces us to an adolescent Josef Stalin in 1908, when he was a scholarship student at an orthodox seminary in Tiflis, in his native Georgia. Many of the students there held secret study groups and read communist texts under the noses of the strict priests, including Soso. The story is a detailed glimpse into his life at the seminary, his thoughts about rebels he saw as heroes, and his bullying determination to be a leader of the other students.
In "Bottle Cap", we meet seventeen-year-old Rafael Trujilio in 1908, who later became president of his native country, the Dominican Republic. He is a dandy, whitening his skin with makeup, using perfume, and saving up money from his job at the morse code office to buy a new tie. He also has obsessive compulsive disorder, collecting bottle caps and arranging them just so, with a high degree of ritual. When his brother asks him to join him on a potentially lucrative cattle raid, Rafael finally agrees, but sets his brother up to be caught in revenge for destroying his precise piles of bottle caps.
[Rafael] cuts off Padre Ayala and heads towards his home, forgetting the fury of brother Fernando, María's chunky body and smooth skin, and even the omen of dots and dashes. This bottle cap must be integrated into his collection right away. Appropriate adjustments must be made. A failure to do so properly will cancel out the telegraphic omen, replacing that good portent with a violent and destructive one, which couldn't be cured by crushed oranges or sprinkled seeds, or any means other than old-fashioned patience, fortitude, and endurance. The prospect of failure makes him feel sick. A bad omen could mean cancer, tuberculosis, disasters of human or divine origin. [p.185]
The final story, "Incensed", trails a skinny sixteen-year-old Adolf Hitler over the course of a day in 1905. Sleeping in until the afternoon, dressing up in coattails, top hat and walking stick, he spends what little money he has on the opera theatre and the arts. He had spent time in Vienna and felt himself a sophisticate because of it, though he was rejected by the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna (twice). His widowed mother, Klara, is a timid, fearful woman, easily browbeaten by her eldest son, and he callously bullies his only friend, Gustl, into going with him to the opera. Adi has wild dreams and sees himself redesigning the plain buildings of Linz.
I'm a bit torn over this book. On the one hand, I am full of admiration, for the depth of research shown, for the fine layers of detail, and for such intricate character studies. I called these stories "exquisitely crafted" with good reason. On the other hand, though, I often struggled to truly connect with the stories, and the characters in particular - all the emotions were there, degrees of empathy, if not sympathy (just how sympathetic are some of these youthful characters, especially Tse-Tung, Soso, Rafael and Adi? I can't really sympathise with bullies and arrogant, selfish fools, and I'm sure I'm not meant to); but there was always a degree of distance.
This would be mostly due to the writing style. Cool, collected, present tense (I'm not a fan), very well-written but sometimes too descriptive, slowing the stories down and enabling my mind to wander. It was that weird mix of being fascinated, and yet slightly bored, all because of the slow pacing. The tone, the cadence, was just so steady and controlled, like a musical score that has a beat but no harmony. The measured pacing never changed, whether it was a paragraph of reflection, description or action, and that made the prose seem a bit rigid, even when it was poetical and insightful. It's a matter of what clicks with you on a personal level, and we don't have much say in that.
That's not to say that I wasn't impressed, because I was. I especially liked "Bottle Cap", which was one of those perfectly constructed short stories that delves into a character without telling you what to think all the time, and built up a backstory, context, and action, as well as framing a believable backdrop for someone who later had the blood of hundreds of thousands of people on his hands. I was also impressed with the story of Adi (Hitler), "Incensed", though of all the stories, this one was the one where you could really see a scary man in the making. The others, well those characters could have gone in numerous directions. Adi was a bit scary. In fact, I was reading the National Post's review which came out earlier today (26th October 2012) in which the reviewer likened the stories to gothic horror and monster stories, and the comparison immediately clicked with me. I hadn't thought of them in that way until then (it's not an obvious comparison), but there is definitely something horrifically gothic in these stories of monsters in the making.
It definitely helps, I think, to have some prior knowledge of these historical characters. I had never heard of Idi Amin or Rafael Trujili before, for example, and I don't know much about the personal lives of any of them save a bit of Stalin and Hitler (his frustrated artistic ambitions are well-known, though I had forgotten that he was Austrian. Speaking of which, I didn't know Stalin was from Georgia, though that was part of the Russian Empire at the time). When I knew more about the historical figures, I found I could identify the extra layers and dimensions to the story. The story about Saloth Sâr (Pol Pot), for instance, had minimal impact on me because I know very little about Pol Pot or what exactly he did in Cambodia. The name figures like a monster, and the Khmer Rouge comes with images of blood and violence and maimed children, but that's not the same thing as knowing any details. So the story was interesting but didn't have the same effect on me as the ones on Stalin and Hitler. Especially Hitler - you can really see the man he became later, in this teenager, though his energies - and anger - are redirected to the arts:
Adi steps closer, his eyes so intense and full that Frau Kubizek retreats a couple of steps, her bum pressing against the sink. She closes her mouth.
"I need not tell you, Frau Kubizek," says the fiery but still scrupulously polite guest, "that our dear Gustl has talent, which does not appear with any frequency in men. When a person has that blessing, he also has a certain responsibility to seize and develop it. It would be criminal of you, Frau Kubizek, and criminal of Herr Kubizek, and even criminal of Gustl himself, to forsake or ignore such a gift. It would be like spitting into the face of fate, would it not? Lohengrin is about to be performed in our fair city. That is more important than upholstery. Gustl will benefit by attending the opera this evening. He will grow and mature immeasurably from the experience, and I am sure he will then learn to seize the spirit and harness his considerable power of creation. You must let him go."
Frau Kubizek is holding an unopened bean husk with two hands as if it were a life preserver. Her eyes are wide and her brow is raised. "My, my," she says, amazed. "In that case." [p.241]
Where I felt I had some knowledge of the men they were to become, I could detect the subtlety and the layers of meaning, and where I had very little or none, I could simply appreciate the stories for being solid character studies. Some of the characters - or it could just be the nature of the angle of the story Piatigorsky chose - are more vivid than others. One of the reasons why I enjoyed "Bottle Cap" more than some of the others was due to the construction of Rafael as a character, one with OCD and a deep fear of bad omens, who is highly superstitious and indulges in petty revenge. A mulatto by heritage, he tries to disguise his brownish skin, tries to remake himself, and make others see him in the way he wants them to (I read that, as president, he had hundreds of statues of himself erected around the country).
He has already powdered himself, but it hasn't been enough. He lays the comb aside, dabs his pad in the whitening powder, and applies another thick layer to his cheeks, forehead, and neck. He's gritting his teeth and patting his face hard with the makeup pad, wondering all the while why his pure-blood Spanish ancestor couldn't stop himself just that once from ramming his cock into a black girl, as if those Haitian temptresses weren't enough trouble already with their constant encroachments on Spanish land, their barbaric jungle religions, and their incomprehensible, mashed-up excuse for French. [p206]
Themes of sexual temptation occur frequently, as does a strong need to prove oneself and fulfil a self-image that is often unrealistic. In general, all the stories made me want to learn more about these historical figures, especially the ones I don't know much about. Getting this tantalising glimpse into their lives - fictionalised, yes, but still framed in facts where possible - seriously whet my appetite for history, a subject I love and yet sadly have little time (or energy) for these days. Piatigorsky isn't afraid to speculate, or use artistic license to connect the dots, which I really appreciate - some authors who write about historical figures seem to feel constrained by a fear of conjecturing wildly, as if the long-dead individual would accuse them of defamation.
If Piatigorsky's prose read, to me, as a bit constrained and slow, I relished the artful, unhindered explorations of these boys who came to be seen as monsters, and the layered, nuanced exploration of their characters and psyches. With a great sense of setting and culture spanning the globe, Anton Piatigorsky's debut work of fiction is an intriguing and fascinating exploration into the minds and motivations of some of history's darkest characters.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.(less)
Ah how I love du Maurier! Her mind must have been a weird and wonderful place, and I love the window her stories give into it. The stories in this col...moreAh how I love du Maurier! Her mind must have been a weird and wonderful place, and I love the window her stories give into it. The stories in this collection are: "The Birds" (pp. 7-43) "Monte Verita" (pp. 44-113) "The Apple Tree" (pp. 114-157) "The Little Photographer" (pp. 158-201) "Kiss Me Again, Stranger" (pp. 202-226) "The Old Man" (pp. 227-237)
I'll go through each of these separately, because they deserve it.
I have never seen Hitchcock's The Birds, but I've seen the famous beach scene and Big Train's spoof (The Working Class - hilarious; "Look straight ahead and whatever you do, just don't give them any money" ! Oh it cracks me up every time!). The short story is different from the film, as far as I can gather, and a perfectly crafted apocalyptic short story. There was a great sense of tension, fear and even terror; yet at the same time I felt sorry for the birds. Must be my modern, animal-loving sensibilities ;) Regardless, it was quite chilling and the abrupt, open ending only makes it more so.
"Monte Verita" was the longest story, and very involved. The friendship between two men who enjoy mountain climbing changes when one of them, Victor, marries a beautiful and enigmatic woman, Anna. When Victor takes Anna hiking through wild mountains somewhere in Europe, they encounter a strange stone fortress and a village of terrified peasants - and Anna disappears behind the walls, never to be seen again. It's very Picnic at Hanging Rock, though of course it predates that story. There's such a welling of joy and sadness in the truth of Monte Verita; I loved the conflicting emotions it stirred - loved that it could stir such extremes in feeling, and contradictory feeling at that.
"The Apple Tree" is a tightly-structured story about a man now retired whose hard-working and resentful wife dies from illness; when he realises that a sickly, bent old apple tree strongly resembles his deceased wife, he becomes increasingly haunted by her presence, as if she were still determined to make him feel wretched from the grave. And no matter what he does to conquer this spectre, to reclaim his life and enjoy his retirement (and widowhood - she was a horrible person really), the apple tree will be victorious.
The ending was so sad, and yet there was no other way for it to end. It was a clever little story, very vivid and with superb atmosphere.
The fourth story, "The Little Photographer", is rather different. In it, a bored Marquise holidays with her two young children on the French Riveria. She becomes taken with a photographer whom she hires to photograph her and her children; heady with the way he looks at her and the power she has over him, she falls into an adulterous secret affair - until he expresses his determination to follow her back to Paris and continue the affair there, leading her to an unplanned and desperate measure to be rid of him that she can never escape from. It's a fascinating story of a psyche, of what makes us do certain things and how the consequences can affect ours lives forever. The Marquise manages to come across as a sympathetic woman despite her actions, and this makes the writing even more exquisite, that du Maurier can achieve that.
"Kiss Me Again, Stranger" leads on quite well from the previous story, but is quite different again. In it the narrator, a man who works as a mechanic, reminisces about the young woman he met once, who he thought he loved after just one meeting, and who devastated him. It's a bittersweet story, one that resonates so strongly with this quiet man's feelings and hopes and broken dreams, that it's stunning juxtaposition against mystery and murder.
The final story, "The Old Man", completely fooled me. I was totally wrapped up in the story, the description of the old man, his wife and their children, fishing during the day, living simply, and then the problem with his son, that I didn't see the ending coming at all. I mean, the ending yet, but not the twist. It made me laugh out loud, I was so delighted!
Every single story in this collection is a superb example of storytelling at its best, exquisitely told, cleverly crafted and structured, stories that make you think and wonder and feel, stories that mix dread and tension and fear with sorrow, love and hope. I can't think of a writer as truly skilled as du Maurier - or at least, not one where it feels like they speak directly to me, with such intensity and skill and create such vivid images in my mind, images that resonate long after I've finished reading. If you haven't read this short story collection, I highly recommend it, especially if you love stories that are a bit dark, unusual, thought-provoking and even unsettling.
I know, the cover is very, ah, eye-catching isn't it? This isn't the sort of book you want to read on the subway, if only so over-the-shoulder readers...moreI know, the cover is very, ah, eye-catching isn't it? This isn't the sort of book you want to read on the subway, if only so over-the-shoulder readers don't get excited in a crammed carriage. Because this is a pretty raunchy book, and one of the better ones I've read.
This collection of nineteen stories from mostly female authors oscillate between structured BDSM and a more playful exploration of sexual desire - which is, if anything, psychological first and foremost. The theme of women gaining power and confidence through "submission" is strong here, as it generally is in erotica of this kind, and is explored through a wide range of scenarios, from the woman whose husband tells her exactly what she can have for lunch to the woman who takes a brave step in facing her secret desires.
I would have to say that this was the most fun and intelligent collection of erotic stories I've read so far, and I use those words deliberately. Reading the mini bios of the authors in the back, they come from all over the English-speaking world and from a wide range of backgrounds, and all of them sound like people you'd want to meet and have a laugh with. Their stories are refreshing and original and unpredictable, and my only complaint was that they were short stories - they often ended at such a great moment I definitely wanted to read more.
I have a feeling that even I, with my non-religious and open-minded upbringing by two unrepressed parents, will keep reading playful erotica well beyond the point where my sense of shame finally evaporates. Because even though I'm an atheist, it's inherent in my western culture that strong sexual feelings are, if not exactly wrong, to be kept quiet and hidden. Something to be embarrassed about, even now in so-called modern times. So far I've made great progress in being open about my appreciation and enjoyment of such stories, but those stern judging eyes of society are still there. I admire the women who write these stories, and are proud of what they produce. I would like to have that kind of confidence. (less)
This is the companion anthology to a book I previously reviewed, Yes, Sir, also edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel. Please, Sir is similar but there is a...moreThis is the companion anthology to a book I previously reviewed, Yes, Sir, also edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel. Please, Sir is similar but there is a notable difference in the style of stories, and I found I liked it less than Yes, Sir.
A woman makes a bad joke about her husband at a party and must pay the price. Another discovers the power of her lover's choking hold on her neck. A woman's lust for her martial arts instructor leads to an exciting battle of power. Foreplay in public, at the opera. All kinds of sex and sexual play are on the table, and while some of the stories have great tension and interplay, some were more lacklustre.
These stories aren't porn: they aren't sex for the sake of sex. They all explore women and men's minds (but especially the former) and what makes us tick. They explore our darkest fantasies and liberate our desires. As Bussel puts it in her introduction:
If you ask me, submission is an art form. It requires dedication, focus, commitment and desire - and there’s no single way of doing it. It’s about unlocking something within yourself so you can reach beyond your normal limits, exposing your body and soul in order to go somewhere you cannot get to alone.
That's what I love about erotica, that psychological aspect, but I'm less keen when the writing gets too artsy-farty, as a couple of these stories did. I don't think of erotica as the kind of genre in which you want to play with experimental prose styles. It's just too distracting, detracting.
Of the 22 stories in this collection, the majority are nicely kinky, fun and thrilling. Some of them stand out, like the one about the woman who's fitted with a dog collar and leash - and nothing else - and taken for a walk in the park. Exhibitionism makes me cringe, but the story was fun despite it. There's great variety here, but not too many stand out in my memory, and they seemed somehow less than the first volume, Yes, Sir. A good read, but a bit forgettable. (less)
From "Beauty and the Beast" to "The Goose Girl", "Bluebeard" to "East of the Sun and West of the Moon", Madore has rewritten some classic fairy tales...moreFrom "Beauty and the Beast" to "The Goose Girl", "Bluebeard" to "East of the Sun and West of the Moon", Madore has rewritten some classic fairy tales to capture and express some of the most popular sexual fantasies women have.
Written simply and tastefully, there is an ulterior motive at work - one that comes across more strongly in some stories than others. As Madore says herself in her foreword,
"It is my belief that to empower women sexually (or in any other part of their life, for that matter), we need to stop trying to control or change them. We must accept them exactly as they are. When women feel good about themselves they feel better about sex. Sex is not a market that is cornered by a select few. All women have it within them to be sexual, although it lies dormant in many of us because of the damage done by our culture and media. It can be reawakened, but only through our total acceptance of who we are. We need to feel safe being sexual without the fear of being exploited, changed, categorized, punished, shamed or degraded."
A few of the stories tackle the issues of self-image and sexual shame head-on, especially "Mirror on the Wall" and "The Ugly Duckling", and the characters in the latter especially, express the problems very articulately.
But it's not just about women's issues. Or rather, it is, but it's all tied up in how we view our sexuality, and whether we can embrace it or not - which is the opposite of selling it or hiding it. Some of the stories are more erotic than others - "The Goose Girl" is very sweet and goes no further than a heated kiss, while "Beauty and the Beast" is very explicit. A couple of the stories were too long and quiet for me, and Madore's take on the fairy tales wasn't always the best one, I thought. But as she says, she chose the most popular sexual fantasies, in the hopes of reaching the most women (with the idea being that your sexual fantasy will probably be here), and she acknowledges that there might be some women left out. Well, without going into details, there were a couple that did speak to me, which is good enough.
This is a great book for those women among us who are shy about their sexuality, feel that it's a private thing (this book won't invade that privacy but rather complement it), or who have been made to feel ashamed of it. There's nothing here that will disgust you or turn you off - no pain, for example - and there's some powerful social commentary that's nicely interwoven that will speak to your intellect as much as to your emotions.
Contains: Beauty and the Beast Bluebeard Cat and Mouse Cinderella East of the Sun and West of the Moon Goldilocks and the Three Barons Mirror on the Wall Mrs. Fox Snow White in the Woods The Empress' New Clothes The Goose Girl The Sheep in Wolves' Clothing The Ugly Duckling(less)
This cover has one of the most beautiful photos - I kept seeing it in the bookshop, picking it up and dithering but ultimately putting it down again....moreThis cover has one of the most beautiful photos - I kept seeing it in the bookshop, picking it up and dithering but ultimately putting it down again. In the end, a few people on Goodreads got me interested in it - they were talking about how it was the latest book in Oprah's book club but that they'd read the sample story and it was so depressing and they didn't want to read something that upset them.
That actually made me want to read it. I want to be confronted, to be challenged, to be emotionally involved, to be taken out of my comfort zone, to learn something new, to experience something different. Sometimes I want a fun story, or a romantic one, and that's fine too. But I also thirst to have my intellect engaged, and to explore a culture, a way of life, an attitude or understanding, different from my own. And, even though I haven't yet read many, I love hearing stories set in Africa, fiction or nonfiction.
Maybe it's a primitive part of my subconscious that centuries of Anglo heritage hasn't quite subsumed, but I feel drawn to this land of human origins, to where it all began - Africa and the Middle East. In a way, aren't they everyone's ancestors? Aren't their cultures and beliefs everyone's heritage? And aren't their problems the concern of us all - not least because in many ways our "western" lands have caused some of them? I feel that if a book is confrontational, upsetting even, that makes it more important to read. To shut yourself off from negative experiences is detrimental, not just to yourself and the development of your world view, but on a collective scale to the world itself.
This collection of five stories - three short stories and two novellas - are set in Nigeria, Benin, Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia, revolve around the experiences of children from different socio-economic, cultural and religious backgrounds, and show how universal a tragedy is their lot, and the lot of all their people, but especially how the things adults do to each other effect children.
The first story, "An Ex-mas Feast", is set in a shanty in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya. There are street children and then there are street gangs - eight year old Jigana is a street child living with his street family in a tin hovel, sniffing glue to keep the hunger at bay. They're all saving so he can go back to school, including his oldest sister Maisha who is selling herself on the streets to rich white men. Jigana loves Maisha and would rather join a street gang than see her become a full-time prostitute.
The story goes back and forth between the present, Christmas, written in present tense; and bits from previous days, written in past tense. Their dialect is a hodgepodge of their native one and English, and can make it an effort to read. Sometimes I don't know if something is meant literally or not - I'm not even sure if Jigana and Maisha and Naema, Baby and the twins are even related to the ones they call Mama and Bapa. I'm not sure but I think not, except for the authority Mama and Bapa have. On the other hand, it's understandable that these children would want to have a family, a home, somewhere they can return to and belong - if they don't actually have one, they create one. But again, I'm not sure.
Akpan wrote the story from Jigana's first-person perspective, and he is wise for his age - that kind of maturity that comes from having no real chance to be a real child. The sense of distance and coldness that infects the prose works in this particular story, saving it from becoming melodramatic and indulgent.
In "Fattening for Gabon", two small children are being cared for by their uncle, Fofo Kpee ("Fofo" meaning uncle), because their parents are dying of AIDs, in his small tin shack by the coast in Benin. Fofo Kpee makes his living ferrying people across the border into Nigeria, and picking coconuts. He quite possibly has some serious debt, because he makes a deal with a corrupt immigration official who he calls Big Guy, to sell the children to child slavers in Gabon.
At first, Kotchikpa and his little sister Yewa are excited, and eagerly learn their lines in order to go over the border, while Fofo Kpee becomes almost paranoid about the deal. Soon his guilt sees him try to flee with the children, but escape is clearly not an option.
Reflecting the various colonial influences, the characters speak a mishmash of their native tongue, French and English, and at times it was even harder to read than the first story. Yet even with the unfamiliar native words sprinkled through their speech, you could still follow what they were saying. Here the distance inherent in the prose made it harder to get into the story - that and the increasing amount of detail present, though it does allow the story to focus on the inner heart and mind without the burden of plot.
As with the other long story, "Luxurious Hearses", not a lot happens: it's all in the details, and the interactions of the characters. But even though the story is written in past tense by Kotchikpa, it's too unemotional, too mature a voice. Yewa, who's only about six, feels like a real child. Kotchikpa is old enough to start seeing things differently, but he's on the cusp. That was a subtle distinction, and yet - and yet the distance created a coldness that made it hard for me to really sympathise, to really invest myself in the story. It could have been much shorter.
After the slow, lengthy story about child trafficking, the third is so short it feels over before it's even begun. Set in Ethiopia, "What Language is That?" feels like filler, like playing Danger Mouse to fill the gap between Doctor Who and Gardening Australia on the ABC. It's about two six year old girls from rich families who live across the street from each other and are best friends - until religious fighting in the streets forces their parents to prohibit their friendship because Selam is Muslim and the narrator is Christian. In their innocent, childlike way, they can't see that it should make a difference.
Because this story is written in present second-person voice ("you" instead of "I"), after the present tense of "An Ex-mas Feast" and the past tense of "Fattening for Gabon", it makes the book start to read like an amateur writer's notebook of experimentation. Yes, there are many ways to write a story, but that doesn't mean you should use it just because it exists and you want to try it. It has to work for the story, and second person rarely works. It aims for a universal voice, to create a common feeling, to involve the reader as protagonist - but often it's just unsettling, creepy or alienating. I'm not sold on it working in this particular story. In a way, it did, but I can't shake off this image of a writer who doesn't understand the "less is more" adage.
The fourth story, "Luxurious Hearses", is the longest and the most painful to read - simply because it's set on a stationary bus. On the one hand, it could be read as a superb story that puts a lone Muslim teenager on a bus of Christians, all fleeing north Nigeria for the apparent safety of the south, all bringing their differing cultural and religious values as well as their fears onto a bus while around them Muslims and Christians are killing each other - only to find that it's happening in the south now too. Tempers flare, suspicions turn nasty, the country is a new democracy but only in name: the police are still corrupt, and some want the generals back. They fight over who has the rights to the oil, over traditional beliefs and modern religions, and who gets a seat on the bus. The Luxurious Buses company sells tickets for every inch of aisle space as well as the prized seats - some buses are full of corpses, people killed in the north being returned to their families in the south for burial.
Jubril is the lone Muslim, pretending to be Christian but finding it hard when there are women all around him and the TVs on the bus come on. He undergoes many moments of revelation and change-of-opinions while on the bus, remembering how he got here, his past - born of a Muslim mother and a Christian father - and trying to keep his head down: not easy when your right hand has been amputated for stealing a goat, a sure sign that you're Muslim.
It's a fascinating exploration of the psyche of this fifteen year old, and into the people - the bus is a microcosm of the country, in a way: even when they're more-or-less of the same religion, strife occurs, showing it's not just religious differences that cause these people to turn on each other.
For as interesting as it is, though, it's also a slog to read. There's a wide variety of dialects on the bus, including people who can't pronounce "l" or "sh", making for an obstacle-course of dialogue. The ending isn't pretty but it is a natural culmination of everything that was brewing on that bus.
The final story is perhaps the most tragic - the story of a Rwandan family at the start of the genocide, "My Parents' Bedroom" is about Monique and her little brother Jean, and their beautiful, graceful Tutsi mother and their Hutu father - if you don't know much about Rwanda as a Belgian colony, the Belgians deliberately set the lighter-skinned, more classically beautiful Tutsis up as the superior native race, and the Hutus - darker, broader in the face - as the lower class, creating simmering racial tension that hadn't been there before until it finally exploded and they started killing each other - though soon enough it was the Hutus who were doing the worst.
What happens to Monique and Jean's parents is devastating, and here the distant, chilling quality of the narration creates both distance and intimacy. It's written in the present tense, and for once this does narrow time down to this moment, and not let you escape. Because we see things through Monique's young eyes, it's hard to tell at first what's happening, but as you near the end of the story everything makes sense - a harsh, brutal kind of sense. Like when she sees blood running down the lounge room wall, and how her parents seem so cruel to her even after she's nearly raped by a man in her own bedroom.
The stories are powerful - where they're let down is the writing. Akpan has potential, but he's not entirely successful here. That distance I keep mentioning, it's inherent in the prose of all the stories, even when they're written in first person, and it detaches you from the stories. The dialogue is realistic but too cluttered and hard to read, which breaks the flow and detracts from the point of the story. I didn't feel like it made the characters Other, just that it kept me from really understanding. Which could just be my flaw.
Sometimes it was hard to follow what was going on - the way a child sees things, no matter how mature they are, is going to be somewhat different - and there's plenty you need to infer, or that is implied. Which I don't mind at all, except that I lacked confidence in what I understood to be happening, because there was no definitive answer that reassured you that you were on the right track. Nowhere in "Fattening for Gabon", for instance, does anyone say that they're child traffickers - that one's fairly obvious, granted, but I wasn't 100% because I was wondering about a few other plausible possibilities until I read the interview with the author at the end. It's a small quibble.
All in all, these are some powerful stories, not sensationalised, perhaps a little contrived at times, and they don't try to force emotion or dictate your reaction, which I appreciate. I'll be interested in what the author, who is a Jesuit priest, writes about next - one thing's for sure, it will be set in Africa.(less)