Last December I wrote about three authors who had created three totally captivating Private Eyes to add an extra sparkle to the festive season. The authors were all Indie (independent) writers, self-published on Amazon, and, like their heroes, were all men.
Of the 120 or so books I’ve read this year, there are three I’d like to get passionate about. The authors this time are women, two of them Indies, one traditionally published. For two of them, it was their first novel.
As 2016 draws to a close one thing is sure. Many books will be written about a year which has been so dark. The great political divides, the crises in Europe, the USA, the Middle East, the terrifying rise of terrorism. But of the novels that will emerge from these events, how many will manage to take a step back from all the upheaval in order to transcend what is local and temporal and show us something more important, something deeper and more universal?
What is striking about the first two books on my list is that they manage to do just that. The first is a historical novel with a specific time and setting, the Second World War. The second is more generic, an imaginary time in a war-torn country without a name. But we know that the author is Lebanese and that the book comes out of her experiences of ‘a country under siege’.
Dear Reader, I can see the frown lines appearing. All you want for Christmas is a book of really bad jokes or yet another James Patterson or a bit of romantic fantasy to waft you to a tropical island with a George Clooney/Dakota Johnson lookalike covered in sun oil. You don’t want to get into something serious, something that’s going to depress you even more than the news. But that’s the thing about these books. If you give them a chance, step out of your comfort zone, you’ll end up with a feeling that’s the opposite of the despair that’s seemed to dominate this year: a feeling of Hope.
In May I saw that Paulette Mahurin had published a book called “The Seven Year Dress”, based on a true story about the Holocaust. Did I really want to plunge once more into the unspeakable events of that time? I did, because I had been knocked for six by her 2015 historical novel about the Dreyfus Affair (another time of bitter divisions) “To live out Loud”. Reading her new book I felt as overwhelmed as with the previous one, a feeling shared by readers everywhere to judge by the reviews, and culminating, in November, in the author winning the McGrath House Independent Book Award for Historical Fiction.
In October I read another book which again, simply because of its subject matter, I wouldn’t normally have chosen. This time it had been assigned to me in a review group. The title was ‘Miro’, a debut novel by A. E. Nasr.
As already mentioned, both books are set against a background of conflict. But the terrible events that make up the narrative are presented in such a way that even as we are carried along by the drama we are forced to reflect on deeper issues, to think about human nature itself, about ‘the great and universal passions of men’* and what it is in us that leads to situations where the very notion of humanity breaks down.
In particular, the theme of dominance and oppression is powerfully evoked by both authors. Along with their synonyms–subjugation, control, enslavement–dominance and oppression need an object, someone or something to control and subjugate. From whatever source it arises–intolerance, greed, cruelty, a lust for power–and whatever form it takes–religious, political, racial, psychological–there is something peculiarly chilling about man’s** need to oppress. To assert physical or ideological supremacy, to stifle, to crush, to destroy, to create a world of the dominator and the dominated. It may be in the camps of Boko Haram or ISIL, with their Chibok schoolgirl ‘wives’ and 10-year-old Yasidi sex slaves. It may be in a corner of the school playground, in sports locker rooms, or behind the closed doors of a middle-class family home. In Paulette Mahurin’s novel, it is in Auschwitz where Helen Stein is humiliated, degraded, stripped of her identity, ‘dismantled’ as a person. In “Miro” it is an underground hole where four men and a boy have been imprisoned for 9 years, deprived of light and contact with the natural world, subjected to unspeakable torture in an attempt to dehumanise them.
Before you throw up your hands and reach for the joke book it’s important to remember that, as history has shown us time after time, among the dominated and oppressed a spark of resistance somehow manages to survive, a resilience nourished by the belief in the idea that man, if not born free, is at least meant to be free. And writers such as Paulette Mahurin and A.E. Nasr inspire us to hang on to that belief, to encourage us to continue, to resist oppression, to blow the spark into a flame, to fire the heart to aim for the best. Through their wonderful prose they bring a ringing message of hope that, as in all the best literature, will give immense comfort in these worst of times.
(A little commercial aside before I talk about the last book that had me on my feet and cheering this year. Bearing in mind the baser human craving for a little bit of candy floss in the world of seriously good books, I have been working on my final tome in the French Summer Novel Series and am delighted to inform future readers that Chapter 1 opens with Claudie, on her way to Biarritz, jumping out of the Renault and flashing her red satin Agent Provocateur knickers to a tailgating macho driver, along with an invitation for him to embrace her derrière.)
“H is for Hawk” was an instant sensation when published in 2014. I missed the rave reviews and literary awards and didn’t read it until this year, knowing nothing at all about the book or its author. Just in case, like me, you were on another planet (aka pruning lavender in the Tarn) when it came out, here’s why you should put it on your list.
One of the enduring symbols of freedom must be the soaring hawk. Earthly animals bound off into the forest or swim away into the ocean, but the hawk goes up, into the endless sky. There are countless examples of man’s oppression of animals, wild or domestic, just as there are examples of man’s friendship with animals, a bond which may even surpass the love he has for another human being. There are cases too where the animal feels that bond so deeply it would rather die than remain alive without its human friend. As an anthropomorphist guided by that old master, Montaigne, I am happy to agree that in many cases animals are superior to humans.
But the heroine of Helen Macdonald’s book defies anthropomorphism. Everything about her is ‘tuned and turned to hunt and kill.’ For the author, she was ‘everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.’ Her name is Mabel, and she is a goshawk. In this extraordinary ‘memoir’, Macdonald tells the story of her year with Mabel, whom she acquired to help her cope with the overwhelming grief she felt after her father’s death. She dreams of ‘the hawk slipping through a rent in the air into another world’ and later realises that she ‘had wanted to fly with the hawk to find my father; find him and bring him home.’ Her intellectual curiosity, her reflections on her own experiences with her hawk against the context of history and myth, ‘older ways of seeing the world’, her courageous, no-holds-barred descriptions of the emotional roller coaster she managed to survive, are so moving that several times I found myself having to put down the book and march off into the garden. (As indeed I did with the other two books). There’s also a story within Helen’s own story, that of T.H. White’s experience with falconry, a superb bonus for anyone who had been entranced by White’s magical morphings of humans to animals in ‘The Once and Future King,’ but didn’t know anything about his real-life obsession with ‘the birdwatchers’ dark grail.’ Add to all these marvels the exquisite, breath-taking beauty of Macdonald’s prose, and you have a must-read.
‘I’d thought that to heal my great hurt, I should flee to the wild’…‘but in my misery all I had done was turn the hawk into a mirror of me…’Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks.’
Ah, the wonderful world of books… Six stars out of five for these three great reads! Kurt Vonnegut has the last word:
“I am eternally grateful… for my knack of finding in great books, some of them very funny books, reason enough to feel honored to be alive, no matter what else might be going on.” (Timequake)
Happy Reading, Happy Christmas and a very Happy New Year!
*Wordsworth, Preface to ‘Lyrical Ballads’
**’man’, standing for man, woman, he, she etc. (Do I really need to say that??)