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‘Finding Home: The Immigrant Experience’

Powell’s Bookstore, in Portland, Oregon, is somewhere I dream of going in future (and preferably with an empty suitcase…).  I peruse their website from time to time, and have come across some absolutely wonderful book lists over the years.  One of their latest showcased shelves is entitled ‘Finding Home: The Immigrant Experience’, which collects together books about people who have moved to many different countries and experienced culture shocks and the like.  Travel is a big part of my life, and I am always interested in reading such accounts, both fiction and non-fiction.  I thought it would therefore be a nice idea to collect together eight of these novels, the first four of which I have read and would highly recommend, and the final four which are high on my to-read list.  You can view the full list here.

97806184852221. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Namesake is a finely wrought, deeply moving family drama that illuminates this acclaimed author’s signature themes: the immigrant experience, the clash of cultures, the tangled ties between generations.  The Namesake takes the Ganguli family from their tradition-bound life in Calcutta through their fraught transformation into Americans. On the heels of an arranged wedding, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli settle in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Ashoke does his best to adapt while his wife pines for home. When their son, Gogol, is born, the task of naming him betrays their hope of respecting old ways in a new world. And we watch as Gogol stumbles along the first-generation path, strewn with conflicting loyalties, comic detours, and wrenching love affairs. With empathy and penetrating insight, Lahiri explores the expectations bestowed on us by our parents and the means by which we come to define who we are.’
2. Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota (review here)
‘In the north of England, a group of young Indian immigrants struggle to begin something new–to support their families; to build their futures; to show their worth; to escape their pasts. An epic for our times, The Year of the Runaways is a stunning work of fiction that explores what it means and what it costs to make a new life, the capaciousness of the human spirit, and the power of humanity in the face of unspeakable suffering.’

3. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (review here) 9780749399573
‘Four mothers, four daughters, four families whose histories shift with the four winds depending on who’s “saying” the stories. In 1949 four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, begin meeting to eat dim sum, play mahjong, and talk. United in shared unspeakable loss and hope, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. Rather than sink into tragedy, they choose to gather to raise their spirits and money. “To despair was to wish back for something already lost. Or to prolong what was already unbearable.” Forty years later the stories and history continue.  With wit and sensitivity, Amy Tan examines the sometimes painful, often tender, and always deep connection between mothers and daughters. As each woman reveals her secrets, trying to unravel the truth about her life, the strings become more tangled, more entwined. Mothers boast or despair over daughters, and daughters roll their eyes even as they feel the inextricable tightening of their matriarchal ties. Tan is an astute storyteller, enticing readers to immerse themselves into these lives of complexity and mystery.’
4. Brick Lane by Monica Ali
‘After an arranged marriage to Chanu, a man twenty years older, Nazneen is taken to London, leaving her home and heart in the Bangladeshi village where she was born. Her new world is full of mysteries. How can she cross the road without being hit by a car (an operation akin to dodging raindrops in the monsoon)? What is the secret of her bullying neighbor Mrs. Islam? What is a Hell’s Angel? And how must she comfort the naïve and disillusioned Chanu?  As a good Muslim girl, Nazneen struggles to not question why things happen. She submits, as she must, to Fate and devotes herself to her husband and daughters. Yet to her amazement, she begins an affair with a handsome young radical, and her erotic awakening throws her old certainties into chaos.  Monica Ali’s splendid novel is about journeys both external and internal, where the marvellous and the terrifying spiral together.’
97814197294855. The Displaced: Writers on Refugee Lives, edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen
‘Viet Nguyen, called “one of our great chroniclers of displacement” (Joyce Carol Oates, The New Yorker), brings together writers originally from Mexico, Bosnia, Iran, Afghanistan, Soviet Ukraine, Hungary, Chile, Ethiopia, and others to make their stories heard. They are formidable in their own right–MacArthur Genius grant recipients, National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award finalists, filmmakers, speakers, lawyers, professors, and New Yorker contributors–and they are all refugees, many as children arriving in London and Toronto, Oklahoma and Minnesota, South Africa and Germany. Their 17 contributions are as diverse as their own lives have been, and yet hold just as many themes in common.  These essays reveal moments of uncertainty, resilience in the face of trauma, and a reimagining of identity, forming a compelling look at what it means to be forced to leave home and find a place of refuge. The Displaced is also a commitment: ABRAMS will donate 10 percent of the cover price of this book, a minimum of $25,000 annually, to the International Rescue Committee, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing humanitarian aid, relief, and resettlement to refugees and other victims of oppression or violent conflict.’
6. The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu
‘Seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled the Ethiopian Revolution for a new start in the United States. Now he finds himself running a failing grocery store in a poor African-American section of Washington, D.C., his only companions two fellow African immigrants who share his bitter nostalgia and longing for his home continent. Years ago and worlds away Sepha could never have imagined a life of such isolation. As his environment begins to change, hope comes in the form of a friendship with new neighbors Judith and Naomi, a white woman and her biracial daughter. But when a series of racial incidents disturbs the community, Sepha may lose everything all over again.’
7. Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya 9781594632143
‘In this account of two decades in the life of an immigrant household, the fall of communism and the rise of globalization are artfully reflected in the experience of a single family. Ironies, subtle and glaring, are revealed: the Nasmertovs left Odessa for Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, with a huge sense of finality, only to find that the divide between the old world and the new is not nearly as clear-cut as they thought. The dissolution of the Soviet Union makes returning just a matter of a plane ticket, and the Russian-owned shops in their adopted neighborhood stock even the most obscure comforts of home. Pursuing the American Dream once meant giving up everything, but does the dream still work if the past is always within reach?  If the Nasmertov parents can afford only to look forward, learning the rules of aspiration, the familys youngest, Frida, can only look back.  In striking, arresting prose loaded with fresh and inventive turns of phrase, Yelena Akhtiorskaya has written the first great novel of Brighton Beach: a searing portrait of hope and ambition, and a profound exploration of the power and limits of language itself, its ability to make connections across cultures and generations.’
8. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
‘Profoundly moving and gracefully told, Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them. Betrayed by her wealthy lover, Sunja finds unexpected salvation when a young tubercular minister offers to marry her and bring her to Japan to start a new life.  So begins a sweeping saga of exceptional people in exile from a homeland they never knew and caught in the indifferent arc of history. In Japan, Sunja’s family members endure harsh discrimination, catastrophes, and poverty, yet they also encounter great joy as they pursue their passions and rise to meet the challenges this new home presents. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, they are bound together by deep roots as their family faces enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.’

Which are your favourite books about the immigrant experience?  Have you read any of these?

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‘The Shadow Year’ by Hannah Richell **

I really enjoyed Hannah Richell’s debut novel, Secrets of the Tides, and jumped at the chance of receiving a review copy of The Shadow Year.  This is blurbed as ‘another mesmerising story of tragedy, lies and betrayal.’

9781455554331In the novel, protagonist Lila Bailey receives a package ‘out of the blue’, which consists of a letter and a key.  She has no idea who could have done such a thing, but someone has anonymously bequeathed her a ‘remote lakeside cottage and the timing couldn’t be better; with her marriage unravelling, the house offers the perfect escape.’  Upon reaching the cottage, which lies in Derbyshire’s Peak District, Lila soon begins to wonder as to why the previous inhabitants clearly left in such a hurry, leaving their belongings behind.  She also, later on, starts to feel as though she is being watched at every turn.  ‘As a year at the lake unfolds, Lila uncovers long forgotten secrets and discovers that the past can cast a very long shadow.’

The prologue is rather sensuously written.  Here, Richell has focused upon an unnamed female character, and speaks of the lake itself almost as a character in its own right: ‘Pushing off from the bottom, she swims out to where the water is dark and deep then stops to watch the breeze play across the surface, lifting it in choppy peaks.  Her blood is cooling and she feels the weight of herself – her arms, her legs, the heavy tangle of her nightie, her slow-beating heart.  Treading water, she sees the cottage tilt in the distance and the light waver across the treetops.  It’s a dream, she tells herself and lays her head back upon the water, suspended there between earth and sky, floating for a moment upon the skin of the lake.’

Lila likes the idea of going to explore the land with Tom, her husband, a trip which is focused upon in the first chapter.  The pair are dealing with a bereavement, following a miscarriage.  Of the trip, which Lila suggests after a series of arguments, Richell writes: ‘She can see that he is surprised by her sudden desire to do something and knows it must seem strange when she has spent the last couple of weeks holed-up at home, doing very little of anything besides sleeping and crying and wandering aimlessly around the house.  But somewhere new and remote…  somewhere no one knows them…  somewhere where no one knows what’s happened is strangely appealing.’

The second chapter of The Shadow Year begins in 1980, when five friends, all of whom have just finished their undergraduate degrees, stumble upon the same cottage that will be left to Lila decades later.  They are all unsure about what to do in the ‘real world’, and the cottage becomes a place of escape for them.  Upon the suggestion of Ben’s, they decide on a whim to spend an entire year there as an ‘experiment’, cut off from the rest of the world, and able to enjoy their own pursuits.  All is not as idyllic as it first seems, however; tensions begin to mount between various members of the group, and ‘when an unexpected visitor appears at their door, nothing will be the same again.’

Richell’s descriptions of the dilapidated cottage are quite lovely.  She writes: ‘The gritstone walls are spotted with lichen and the rose appears to be missing several tiles.  Closer still and she can see guttering hanging off at an alarming angle and birds’ nests and cobwebs lodged under the eaves.  In front of both ground floor windows, nestled amidst the dandelions and nettles are wild bursts of lime green seed heads, round and flat and translucent like paper…  As they move closer still they see that the windows are black with grime…’.

Everything in The Shadow Year started off so well, but there was very little momentum with which to carry the story along.  Rather, whole sections felt slow and almost stagnant.  I did not feel invested in a single character here.  I remember much of the cast of Secrets of the Tides as realistic constructions, with depth to them, and believable backstories.  The characters here, however, felt rather cliched.  The main twist of the novel was predictable, and I saw it coming very quickly indeed.

A lot of other reviewers seem to have really enjoyed The Shadow Year, but I cannot help but feel disappointed.  I have read books with similar plotlines, by the likes of Juliet Greenwood and Kate Morton, which I found to be far more immersive, and better pieced together.

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‘Uncanny Stories’ by May Sinclair *****

I have been coveting a copy of Uncanny Stories by May Sinclair for such a long time.  She is an author whom I was originally focusing upon in my current postgraduate thesis, and whilst my scope has changed since I began my project, I am still very keen to read her entire oeuvre.  This particular book proved rather difficult to find, but I struck gold by keeping my eye on Abebooks, and finding a copy which was around £20 cheaper than those which I have previously seen.

The Wordsworth Edition which, whilst out of print, seemed to be the only edition which I could find, has been edited and introduced in a thorough manner by the well-informed 9781840224924Paul March-Russell.  The stories were first published with this title in 1923, and throughout, Sinclair ‘combines the traditional ghost story with the discoveries of Freud and Einstein.’  March-Russell, who calls her a ‘pivotal writer in the development of the ghost story’, recognises the myriad elements which influenced Sinclair’s work, calling her ‘one of the most intellectually driven of writers, pursuing the “new” and the “modern” in philosophy, psychoanalysis, mysticism and the paranormal.’  These eight tales promise to ‘shock, enthral, delight and unsettle’.  March-Russell writes that due to the very nature of these stories, they are ‘disturbing’ both in their content and the Modernist form in which they have been written.

A recurring motif in Sinclair’s stories is the ‘horror of family life’, and the ‘theme of self-denial’; she explores both in each of these stories, weaving them cleverly in with mysterious circumstances and paranormal occurrences.  Her writing is what really shines here.  A contemporary critic of hers named Julian Thompson said that her writing was ‘pin-sharp, often harrowingly economic.’  Everything here feels almost effortless; there is such a sense of flow and control in Sinclair’s writing, which often feels like a mixture of the Victorian Gothic and the Modernist tradition.

Uncanny Stories has a curiosity about it; it is as though Sinclair has chosen to explore our world through things which cannot be proven to exist, but which a lot of people in the Victorian era, for instance, as well at the time of writing, were highly interested in.  The descriptions which Sinclair has crafted are vivid and mysterious at once.  ‘The Finding of the Absolute’, for example, deals with differing dimensions and the emergence of Kant conversing with the narrator in this particular space, and is the most unusual story in the collection.  Here, she writes: ‘He found himself alone in an immense grey space, in which there was no distinguishable object but himself.  He was aware of his body as occupying a portion of this space.  For he had a body; a curious, tenuous, whitish body.  The odd thing was that this empty space had a sort of solidity under him.  He was lying on it, stretched out on it, adrift.  It supported him with the buoyancy of deep water.  And yet his body was part of it, melted in.’

Different narrative techniques and perspectives can be found from one story to another so, despite the often recurring themes, there is a freshness and variety to the collection.  Given its main theme, Uncanny Stories could so easily have been melodramatic, but not a single story can be categorised as such.  Sinclair has a way of making obscene and otherworldly things seem entirely reasonable; she provides ghosts and hauntings almost with a sense of normalcy.  The tension is built masterfully, and the theme of obsessive love has been explored in such depth in many differing situations.  Whilst there is a trope in these stories in which many young wives come back to haunt their husbands, the ways in which they do so vary, as does the reasoning.  The only thing here which I felt was a little overdone were the accents, some of which felt almost impenetrable.

The stories collected here were originally presented with illustrations; they have since been removed, which seems a shame.  Of this collection, I had only read one of the stories before, ‘The Flaw in the Crystal’; this, I enjoyed even more the second time around. The influence of psychology particularly here is fascinating; there are so many layers to each story, and psychological elements can be picked out in every single tale.

Uncanny Stories is highly engaging, and whilst I read it during a heatwave in France, it would definitely better suit a dark evening with a crackling fire.  The stories here should be better known and more widely read, as, indeed, should the rest of Sinclair’s books.  She is a wonderful and unjustly neglected author, and this collection demonstrates just how versatile she was.