The alternative book review
Things They Lost
by Okwiri Oduor
Twelve-year-old Ayosa inhabits a world of blurred boundaries. Her memories pre-date her birth; wraiths, ghosts, emotions and nightmares are as real and compelling to her as her human interactions; and her love-hate relationship with her mother Nabumbo defies the normal rules of dependency. Ayosa is desperate to be wanted and loved, but Nabumbo, whose own childhood was torn apart by tragedy, is unable to fulfil the role she has been given. Instead she is often absent: either physically so, when she escapes for weeks or months at a time to pursue a failing career in photography, or psychologically, when she disappears inside herself. As Ayosa knows, this is a family trait: ‘That was how it was. Mamas left. Daughters waited.’
But then Ayosa decides not to wait any more, and her friendship with Mbiu, an orphan dismissed by the townsfolk as a ‘throwaway child’, begins to fill the void. In a world where nothing is black and white, Ayosa realizes that she can forge her own path, and choose who to love and who to leave behind.
Things They Lost, written by Caine Prize-winning Kenyan author Oduor, defies categorization. There is fantasy and magical realism, and there is the coming-of-age narrative of a Bildungsroman, but there are also recognizable elements of Greek tragedy, with the townsfolk – in particular radio personalities Ms Temperance the poet and a man who reads death notices – taking on the role of the Chorus. Ayosa herself is a reverse-Cassandra, who can see the past but isn’t believed.
The writing is mesmeric, at times as warm and rhythmic as a lullaby, and filled with gentle, keen observations of the natural world. A book with a big heart that feels like a hug.
One World Publications (ISBN 9780861543878)
Review by Jo Lateu
This World Does Not Belong to Us
by Natalia Garcia Frere, translated from the Spanish
by Victor Meadowcroft
Ecuadorian author Natalia García Frere’s debut novel is a brooding tale of broken relationships, betrayal and – just possibly – redemption. As a young boy, Lucas witnesses the invasion of his comfortable family home by two violent and uncouth strangers, Felisberto and Eloy. Inexplicably welcomed by Lucas’s weak and vacillating father, the two gradually take over the running of the household. The upkeep of the house is neglected, his mother’s beloved garden is wrecked and she, driven mad by the descent of her family into chaos, is forcibly confined to a cell-like chamber. Eventually, the family is driven out entirely and Lucas is sold into bondage to a rapacious neighbour.
Now, years later, Lucas returns to find the house, still inhabited by the two squatters, in a state of advanced decay and home to a vast multitude of insects, spiders and invasive, strangling weeds. Haunting the furthest and most dilapidated margins of the house, Lucas communes with his fellow liminal creatures, the arachnids and bugs, as he prepares his revenge on the brutes who destroyed his childhood.
For a first novel This World Does Not Belong to Us is a remarkably assured work. In prose that is both poetic and earthy, Natalia García Frere spins her evocation of the natural world and humanity’s place in it with care and precision. It is much to her credit that in a book full of dereliction, both physical and moral, the reader is left with an abiding sense that even in the darkest places, hope and redemption remain living possibilities.
Oneworld Publications (ISBN 9780861541904)
Review by Peter Whittaker
Come to This Court and Cry: How the Holocaust Ends
by Linda Kinstler
Linda Kinstler never knew her paternal grandfather. All she knew is that his name was Boris, he had disappeared at the end of the Second World War and he was never discussed among her relatives. However, the chance discovery of a Latvian spy thriller in a Riga bookshop would radically upend her understanding of her family and its place in history. The book she found was a fictionalized account of the life and crimes of one Boris Karlovics Kinstler, her grandfather, and it set Linda on a path that would cross continents and unearth deeply disturbing evidence of his role in the genocide of Latvia’s Jews in World War Two.
Digging into cold cases, abandoned trials and ongoing investigations, she pieces together the evidence that her grandfather was a member of a Latvian death squad known as the Arajs Kommando. This squad was directly responsible for the murder of 30,000 Jewish people. Another member of the Kommando was Herberts Cukurs, the ‘Butcher of Riga’ who in 1965 was assassinated by Israeli intelligence agents. Astonishingly, there is also evidence that after the war Boris Kinstler worked for the KGB, prior to his disappearance.
Come to This Court and Cry combines meticulous historical research with philosophical inquiries into nationalism, holocaust denial, guilt and the burden of proof. This is an invaluable and highly readable account of not only one family’s story, but also of a period on the cusp of passing from living memory, and deeds we must never allow to be forgotten. As Linda Kinstler writes: ‘Is it possible that the antonym of “forgetting” is.... “justice”?’
Bloomsbury (ISBN 9781526612595)
Review by Peter Whittaker
by Preti Taneja
Aftermaths do not end, or have neat beginnings. Each one feeds into another. Preti Taneja grapples with this after 29 November 2019, when Usman Khan – someone to whom she had taught creative writing while he was in a high-security prison for terrorism related offences – stabbed five people at an event to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Learning Together, an education programme involving university students and incarcerated people. Saskia Jones and Taneja’s friend Jack Merritt were killed in the attack at Fishmongers’ Hall in London.
The fragments of Aftermath expertly reflect the experience of grief and how, as we struggle to make sense of what has happened, we are forced to recalibrate our perspectives on the world and our place in it. In every loss we must examine the losses before, and grieve for what will now be missing in the future.
‘In moments of deep loss we become as children, trained to seek comfort in the old fairy tales: the fundamental good versus the fundamental evil,’ writes Taneja. We can be left searching for simple answers to questions that don’t have them.
Taneja confronts the links between individual and systemic pain as she journeys through the long shadows of colonial history, of 11 September 2001. She explores the violence of the British state, her role in this aftermath as a teacher, as a British-born woman with South Asian heritage, and the power (or powerlessness) of the written word.
Taneja had been invited to the celebration at Fishmongers’ Hall, but had stayed at home to prepare for a literacy festival. Aftermath is a lament on what it means to be one of ‘those who are left’.
And Other Stories (ISBN 9781913505462)
Review by Amy Hall