Our book picks for November
The White Book
by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith (Portobello, ISBN 9781846276293)
Moving to an unfamiliar European city whose present is overshadowed by the memory of a devastating past, the narrator of The White Book finds herself haunted by the story of her older sister, who died just hours after being born.
She feels guilt: had her sister lived, she knows that she herself would never have been born. To counter this shadow of darkness and melancholy, she gifts her sister an imaginary life and the chance to step into her own shoes. In so doing, she contemplates everyday white objects – white representing innocence, cleansing, purity and the colour of her newborn sister’s skin, described by her mother as ‘a crescent-moon rice cake’ from which two piercing black eyes tried to focus on a future. But white too are ossified remains, deadly ice and the breast milk of a mother who has lost her child.
Ostensibly a novel, this latest work by Man Booker prize-winning author Han Kang might be better described as a poetic meditation, lamentation and valediction. There is beauty and pain in every sentence and image, made sharper by their simplicity and aching honesty.
This is a worthy successor to her previous novel, Human Acts (reviewed in NI 489), covering similar themes of loss and memory, but in a deeply personal way with which all of us – whatever our particular shadow – can identify.
by Julia Ebner (I B Tauris, ISBN 9781788310321)
There are two basic premises to The Rage: that, through a process of ‘reciprocal radicalization’, far-Right and Islamist extremists enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship; and that the rise of identity politics and society’s wariness of the establishment and traditional news sources have created a perfect storm of conditions in which radical ideologies can thrive.
Author Julia Ebner is well-placed to drill down into these theories: a former employee of counter-extremism organization Quilliam and a researcher specializing in terrorism and extremism, she infiltrates both far-Right and Islamist groups to provide first-person accounts of how disenfranchised and sidelined youth are preyed on by social-media-savvy recruiters. The picture she paints is a gloomy one: the media sensationalizes terrorist attacks, demonizing entire communities, fuelling resentment, reinforcing the victimhood narrative and thereby playing into extremists’ hands; the margins are turning mainstream and the mainstream has lost its credibility; and the arrival of Trump in the White House – and the associated acceptance of far-Right ideas – ‘might turn out to be the biggest gift American voters could have offered Islamist extremists’.
In a short final chapter, and in a handful of portrayals of those who have rejected their previous extremist lives, Ebner attempts to find some hope, issuing a rallying call for the middle to mobilize and for society to save the fringes. But on the basis of her evidence, the prognosis for a calming of The Rage is not good.
by Anne Applebaum (Allen Lane, ISBN 978 0 241 00380 0)
In 1933 almost four million Ukrainians died in a famine known as the Holodomor. The loss of life was not a result of crop-failure or bad weather conditions. It was human-made.
And, according to historian and journalist Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine, it was a political act, intentionally created by Joseph Stalin’s totalitarian regime to weaken peasant resistance and national identity in Ukraine.
The method used was ‘collective farming’ – which yielded disastrous results. Applebaum traces the origins of the conflict back to 1917: when Ukraine had a short-lived ‘People’s Republic’. From that moment on, Stalin viewed Ukraine as an ‘enemy within’.
As the book repeatedly reminds us, Stalin and others in the Politburo in Moscow, were well aware in 1933 that millions were starving to death. But they viewed Ukrainians not as victims but as traitors, turncoats and saboteurs of the Soviet Union.
The narrative can be tough-going at times. We read accounts of savage acts of cannibalism, even within families, as hunger turned people to madness, violence, and utter despair.
Until 1993 – when Ukraine finally regained its independence – the famine was not talked about in public discourse. Instead, the Soviet Union created an alternative narrative, denying it ever took place.
Red Famine is an important historical analysis that honours and remembers those victims who perished in a callous act of political violence. Though in today’s climate of conflict some will no doubt dismiss it as pro-Ukrainian nationalist myth-making.
The City Always Wins
by Omar Robert Hamilton (Faber and Faber, ISBN 9780571335176)
A revolution charges the city with meaning, bringing the hidden political content of every street-corner and apartment block to the surface. For the participants, this is an intoxicating experience. Translated into prose, however, it can strain the power of image and metaphor.
The difficulty of representing a revolution, and its aftermath, is a subject and weakness of Omar Robert Hamilton’s kinetic novel The City Always Wins. The narrative centres on a middle-class couple of Egyptian radicals – the US-born Khalil, loosely based on the author, and indefatigable Mariam – between 2011 and 2013, as they broadcast anti-government dissent as part of the ‘Chaos Collective’.
The tone and style is docudrama: there are short sentences, inlayed tweets, and visceral descriptions of tear-gas and shotgun spray. This fragmentary approach makes for exciting set-pieces, which are somewhat more engaging than the literary observations: the way that Cairo is like ‘jazz’ (New York is later described similarly), or a protester contemplates a troupe of industrious ants, all working together for a common goal, run close to cliché.
Then again, as one character, a filmmaker, observes, it is difficult to convey the magnitude of a great historical upheaval ‘without being clichéd’. It is the novel’s strength that the timeline begins after the heroic events of January 2011, when President Mubarak was overthrown. In fact, the most affecting scenes are in the final third, when the contradictions of that revolution start to unspool, when comrades are killed and imprisoned, when Khalil and Mariam’s relationship buckles, and the melancholy sets in.