The alternative book review
Build Your House Around My Body
by Violet Kupersmith
(Oneworld, ISBN 9780861541461)
Vietnamese-American author Violet Kupersmith’s assured debut novel is structured around two disappearances a quarter of a century apart. In 1986 the young daughter of the prosperous Ma family in the Vietnamese Highlands district of Ia Kare gets lost in a rubber plantation after a family argument. Twenty-five years later, Winnie, a young English Language teacher, vanishes inexplicably from her Saigon home.
As Kupersmith’s narrative shuttles between these two timelines we learn of Winnie’s unhappy past and the dark family secrets of the Ma household. We meet Winnie’s boyfriend Long Phan and his policeman brother Tan, who is haunted by a past tragedy in which he was complicit. Other key players include Binh, who is a ghost, a talking dog, a fortune teller, sentient smoke, and snakes – lots and lots of snakes – one of which, crucially for the plot, has two heads.
It is obvious from this outline that this is a labyrinthine, shape-shifting novel, deep in magical realism territory. It is greatly to the author’s credit that she makes this work and fully engages the reader’s interest. We believe in and care about her characters, whether they be a ghost hunter of dubious psychic powers or a drug-dealing owner of a dilapidated zoo. In its attempt to get under the skin of a fractured society through a kaleidoscopic story line and a huge cast of characters, this novel is reminiscent of Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. It is a measure of Violet Kupersmith’s achievement that Build Your House Around My Body can stand proudly in such exalted company. – Peter Whittaker
The Art of Losing
by Alice Zeniter
(Pan MacMillan, ISBN 9781509884117)
French-Algerian Alice Zeniter’s three-generation saga stretches from rural Algeria through the bidonvilles and banlieues of provincial France to present-day Paris. The narrative follows in turn Ali, a community leader turned harki (an Algerian who sided with the French during the War of Independence, considered a traitor by his own community), his studious son Hamid who as a child accompanies Ali to France, and Hamid’s high-achieving journalist daughter Naïma.
Arriving in France, Ali’s family live in a refugee camp before being granted state-funded accommodation. In an example of the dislocation which can characterize the immigrant experience, he finds himself on the lowest rung in the hierarchy of manual labourers. Ali cannot understand why, having abandoned so much to guarantee a future for his children, they accuse him of submission to his colonial oppressors. Hamid, combative and politically aware, is embarrassed by his father’s apparent submissiveness and challenges the condescending attitudes of his peers and teachers. Later, Hamid will admit that his rage is due to shame at his parents’ sacrifice for their family.
Educated and perceptive, Naïma is able to contextualize the experience of her father and grandfather. Following the atrocities committed by Daesh, Naïma identifies historical parallels which, in the name of liberation, drove Ali out of Algeria on pain of death. She is infuriated to be trapped between stereotypes: the ‘good Arab’ who assimilates and abandons her less fortunate compatriots; and the ‘bad Arab’, marginalized in French society.
Despite its weighty subject matter – and lacerating critique of the dominant culture – The Art of Losing is written with great empathy and is frequently very funny. – Ian Nixon
by Jillian C York
(Verso, ISBN 9781788738804)
Democrats around the world were shocked when, in the thick of the pandemic, Twitter kowtowed to state pressure and took down tweets from Indian users desperately seeking oxygen or hospital beds for their dying relatives – because they made the disastrous government of Narendra Modi look bad. But it will have come as no surprise to readers of Jillian C York’s timely and trenchant Silicon Values.
We are familiar now with the array of negative impacts associated with companies like Facebook, Google or Twitter: the proliferation of disinformation and misinformation; data-mining and privacy invasion; profiting from anger, racism, hatred and polarization. We hear less about how the corporations, for all their free-speech cant, have become unaccountable censors. Or of the cosy backdoor collaborations they enjoy with governments, to the detriment of citizens. ‘The powerful teaming up against the relatively powerless in opaque and unaccountable ways,’ is how York puts it. Facebook comes out worst, with Israel/Palestine, Myanmar, India and the Philippines listed as places where the company’s impact ‘has been deadly’. But Twitter too has ‘kissed up to authoritarian leaders in the pursuit of profit’ in countries like Saudi Arabia.
York, who for many years has been international activism director at the Electronic Freedom Foundation, certainly knows her stuff. But she does not claim to have all the answers and is willing to admit past naïveté. Her proposals for change, however, are clear and democratic, arguing for independent content moderation, social inclusion, and a user-powered movement against the handful of American men who currently run the show from Silicon Valley. ‘The future is ours to write,’ she concludes. It has to be. – Vanessa Baird
Abolishing the Police
edited by Koshka Duff
(Dog Section Press, ISBN 9781916036574)
If you express a desire for police abolition, you are often met with the counter argument that it’s unrealistic and unsafe. This collection of essays, edited by University of Nottingham philosopher and Cops Off Campus organizer Koshka Duff, does a solid job of explaining why abolition is about creating a world that’s safer for everyone.
Abolishing the Police deftly links the police with wider state power – including border forces and prisons. As contributor Daniel Loick outlines, the abolition movement’s vision is ‘a world without all the institutions of violence that seem to be so deeply anchored in our current social and political routines.’
The vividly illustrated book, which mainly focuses on the UK but with a good amount of analysis from further afield, backs up abolition theory with examples of how state violence plays out in people’s lives: from the police killings and protest crackdowns that go viral, to the mundane oppression that can go largely unnoticed by those not directly impacted.
‘Abolition is a way of life,’ writes Sarah Lamble. It’s not a single ‘event’ where the abolitionists win and we all wake up in the new world – it’s an ongoing process as much about constructing alternatives as dismantling the old structures. Scattered throughout are cases where these alternatives are being used to deal with issues such as sexual violence, but these projects and practices are not unpacked in great depth.
This is above all a useful primer for anyone curious to explore the whys of police abolition and it covers a lot of analytical ground in an accessible way. – Amy Hall