Death in the East | Abir Mukherjee | Harvill Secker | 19 November 2019 | RRP $33.00 | 9781787300583
“…if the universe gave you a chance for redemption, you’d bloody well better take it, because second chances were rare and third chances were non-existent.”
Abir Mukherjee adds to his impressive slate of historical crime novels with Death in the East, the fourth mystery starring Calcutta police detective Captain Sam Wyndham and his Indian Sergeant, Surrender-not Banerjee. The mastery of his craft is on full show here, as Mukherjee expertly entwines two murders 17 years apart and on different continents: one in 1905, London, when Wyndham was a young, inexperienced constable; the other in 1922 Assam, the ‘present day’ in the series continuity, where Wyndham has sought the aid of a sainted monk to help conquer his opium addiction.
Mukherjee’s interrogations have the rare quality of gradually illuminating and thickening characters, plot, and setting. Alongside an ingenious murder method, Death in the East is abrim with racial tension, methodical detective work, and the hero’s appealing struggle to balance a thirst for revenge with his desire for justice. This might just be Wyndham and Banerjee finest hour. Mukherjee should be celebrated for his sterling consistency. There is no better author of crime fiction writing today — this series is excellent.
The Gypsy Goddess | Meena Kandasamy | Atlantic Books | April 2015 | RRP $23.00 | 9781782391807
“Because I have taken pleasure in the aggressive act of clobbering you with metafiction devices, I can hear some of you go: what happened to the rules of a novel?
They are hanging on my clothesline over there.”
This novel about the 1968 massacre of 44 Dalit agricultural labourers in Kilvenmani village, in the Tanjore district of Tamil Nadu, South India, and the struggle of an author to tell the story, is mesmerising and frustrating in equal measure. It features some of the most exquisite, lurid passages I’ve read in years, but its fractured format negated its overall impact. I was left more frustrated than charmed; annoyed by the constant shifts in perspectives and voices — from breathless single-sentences, to second-person narrations, to communist pamphlets — that never quite gelled cohesively. Meena Kandasamy deserves credit for playing with the form, and I’m keen to read more of her work, because some of the prose truly sings, but ultimately, I would’ve preferred a straightforward retelling of these horrific events. Or maybe I’m just a simpleton.
Bernardine Evaristo’s extraordinary eighth novel, and deserved winner of last year’s Booker prize, provides bold, contemporary perspectives on feminism and race through 12 interconnected stories that unravel through radiantly lyrical, iconoclastically stylistic prose.
Any fear I had of the mental taxation it might require to enjoy Girl, Woman, Other — with its scarce punctuation, unexpected line breaks, and paucity of capitalisation — was completely misplaced; this is a blazingly readable firecracker of a novel. The experiences of the 12 black, British characters, who exist in different decades and touch each other’s lives both plainly and subtly, coexist in an exquisite harmony that I won’t soon forget.
Imprint: Hamish Hamilton Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 2-May-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom
Amnesty | Aravind Adiga | Pan Macmillan AU | February 2020 | RRP $30.00 | 9781509879045
“There is a buzz, a reflexive retinal buzz, whenever a man or woman born in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh sees another from his or her part of the world in Sydney — a tribal pinprick, an instinct always reciprocal, like the instantaneous recognition of homosexuals in a repressed society. Because even if both of you believe that one brown man holds no special significance for another in Sydney — a city and civilisation built on the principle of the exclusion of men and women who were not white, and which fully outgrew that principle only a generation ago — which is to say, even if you want to stay icebox or indifferent in the presence of the other brown man, you are helpless.”
Booker Prize-winning author Aravind Adiga returns with the story of a day in the life of Dhananjaya ‘Danny’ Rajaratnam, an illegal Sri Lankan immigrant, who unwittingly becomes embroiled in a murder, and must decide whether coming forward with information that would aid the police investigation is worth the risk of deportation. As he evaluates the morality and consequences of either decision, we learn of Danny’s past, and his daily struggles to survive as a cleaner in Sydney; living in a grocery storeroom under the thumb of its tyrannical owner; wracked by the fear of the authorities who want him expelled; and the desperate measures he must go to in order to assimilate into Australian society.
What makes Amnesty propulsive, powerful and unsettling in equal measure is Adiga’s ability to render this tale apolitically. The novel neither berates nor bolsters Australia’s immigration policy, merely spotlights a singular human story that so often gets lost amidst the debate, framed around a young man’s quest to negotiate the blurred line between justice and responsibility. It’s a story of dreams; those already shattered, those for the future, and the cost of making them a reality.
This timely novel depicts the struggles faced by immigrants — legal and illegal — with heartbreaking specificity; the constant fear of being discovered by immigration officers alongside the desire to acclimate to a society that doesn’t want you. It’s one of best, and most bittersweet novels I’ve read in some time; as a reader, you are burdened by the knowledge that whatever Danny chooses to do, the ramifications will be ruinous. Sober and erudite, Amnesty is another tour-de-force from a brilliant writer whose literary powers show no signs of abating.
The Godmother | Hannelore Cayre | translated by Stephanie Smee |Black Inc | September 2019 | RRP $28.00 | 9781760641610
“My fraudster parents had a visceral love of money. They loved it, not like you love an inert object stashed away in a suitcase or held in some account. No. They loved it like a living, intelligent being that can create and kill, that is endowed with the capacity to reproduce.”
Hannelore Cayre’s The Godmother arrived at the bookshop billowing a trail of hype, anticipation and acclaim behind it. Winner of the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, France’s most prestigious award for crime fiction, and adapted to screen, this bite-sized slice of French noir tells the story of Patience Portefeux, a widowed 53-year-old translator for the Paris drug squad, who lives meagerly, struggling to provide for her daughters and her aged mother’s care. When she comes into contact with the mother of a drug trafficker, she uses information gleaned from the police wiretaps she translates to secure a large quantity of hash. Under the alias the Godmother, she constructs a small criminal empire, thereby securing her financial future, and her family’s, and marinating over the moral implications of her decision.
It’s eminently readable, and efficiently translated by Stephanie Smee, but there’s a distinct lack of tension or excitement in The Godmother. It reads at a lackadaisical pace, which never threatens to become boring, but never got my blood boiling. It’s a fascinating portrait of a woman pushed to extremes, and her sardonic observations of French society are lacerating, but it faded in and out of my life with a glimmer rather than the explosion I was hoping for. I was never particularly anxious about Patience’s fate, and for a novel that’s fundamentally about a woman exposing herself to a city’s underworld and steeping herself in a corrupt world, that’s a real killer. It’s not bad; I just prefer my crime fiction with underlying menace.
This year I managed to read 147 books, which is 19 less than in 2018, which is a lot, but then, 2019 has been a much better year for me personally, so it’s hard to complain. I’ve already posted about my favourite books of the year, but as I’ve been doing since 2016, this year I tracked my reading by a variety of categories, the results of which are below.
This year I reached as close to gender parity as I ever have before, and I hope to continue closing the gap. In fact, I’d love an even split in 2020. I read far less crime than last year, but it’s still the genre I read most. And my reading continues to be dominated by American authors; I’d love to read more nationalities, and that’ll be another mission next year. Interestingly and unintentionally I listened to far fewer audio books. And despite the avalanche of proofs several publishers supply me, I actually buy most of the books I read.
Kokomo | Victoria Hannan | Hachette Australia | August 2020 | RRP $30.00 | 9780733643323
“Mina wondered what other secrets lay between these people, wondered if maybe every family was built on an intricate web of lies, or at least things people chose not to tell each other. She’d learned that not every truth deserves air: some truths were better smothered, extinguished before they could take hold and burn everything to the ground.”
Victoria Hannan’s seriously impressive debut Kokomo charts the complex, resilient relationship of a mother and daughter, and the toxicity of decades-long secrets finally surfacing. It’s a sharply-observed portrait of devastating loneliness and human fallibility, and what it means to belong.
When Mina’s agoraphobic mother leaves her house for the first time in more than a decade, she rushes from her life in London to be by Elaine’s side in Melbourne. On the one hand, it’s to commemorate her mother’s decision to unshackle herself from the house; on the other, it’s to untangle the mystery of why Elaine has chosen this moment to return to the world. But Elaine is reticent to explain, or delve into the agony of the past; and Mina’s homecoming engenders emotional fallout of her own with people she thought she’d left behind long ago.
Smart and sensitive, punctuated with moments of real humour, Hannan has crafted a novel in the mould of Anne Tyler’s finest work. Like Tyler, Hannan trades expertly in the themes of the struggle for identity, the lack of meaningful communication between loved ones, and individual isolation; and although it positively glows with poignancy, it’s somehow free of gross sentimentality. This is first rate fiction from a writer to watch.
Number Of Pages: 320
Available: 28th July 2020