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‘Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul’ by Taran N. Khan ****

I stumbled across Taran N. Khan’s Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul on my library app, and thought it sounded fascinating.  Thankfully the ebook version was available for me to borrow, and I began it right away.  First published in 2019, Indian author Khan arrived in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2006, three years after the Taliban regime was overthrown.

49114654._sx318_-1On her arrival in Kabul, where she embarked on a new work project with her husband at a local television station, Khan was ‘cautioned never to walk [around the city].  Her instincts compelled her to do the opposite: to take that precarious first step and enter the life of the city with the unique, tactile intimacy that comes from being a walker.’  As a Muslim woman, she was able to access parts of the city which were closed to other travellers.  She continued to walk around different regions of the city until she returned to India in 2013.

In her memoir, Khan ‘paints a lyrical, personal, and meditative portrait of a city we know primarily in terms of conflict and peace.’  Shadow City has accordingly been split up into seven different sections, and begins and ends with a chapter named ‘Returns’.  Throughout, Khan gives a comprehensive history of Afghanistan, and of Kabul specifically.  The city is one which kept drawing Khan back, and even after short absences, she always longed to return.

In her foreword, Khan writes: ‘Memory returns in fragments.  I remember walking through the half-empty streets feeling the sun on my back.  I heard snatches of song on a radio, passed a group of young men lounging on a broken sofa they had pulled onto the street.  I saw walls with bullet marks, and barriers across gates…  Under my feet was the slush of the spring.’  She later describes Kabul as a place of hidden scenes: ‘It deceives you with its high walls streaked with brown mud…  It hides behind the fine mist of dust that hangs over its streets and homes, so that the city appears as though from the other side of a soft curtain.  Like a mirage, a place that is both near and far away.’

Khan’s ability to walk around Kabul was a sharp contrast to her strict upbringing in the city of Aligarh, India.  The few outings which she was allowed on were strictly regulated, and she was always chaperoned.  Of her past and present, she reflects: ‘The carefully cloistered routines of my adolescence corresponded seamlessly with the rhythm of the city in 2006…  the things other women from abroad found difficult about the city often seemed quite natural to me.’

Khan comments: ‘Being told not to walk was another way in which Kabul felt familiar.  To map the city, I drew on the same knowledge and intuition that had helped me navigate the streets of my home town…  These were routes of discovery – maps of being lost.  To be lost is a way to see a place afresh…  To be lost in Kabul is to find it – as a place of richness and possibility.’  I can understand Khan’s outlook, as a fellow walker; one of my favourite things to do is to wander, sometimes aimlessly, particularly when I am exploring new places.  Walking also allows Khan some freedom; she allows herself to walk, as a woman, around a male-dominated space, which ultimately gives her a lot of agency.  She becomes a flaneuse, an observer of her new place.

An element of Shadow City which I particularly enjoyed was the way in which Khan notices and interprets absences; for instance, of those who have passed away, and who now reside in various graveyards – a ‘web of memorials’ – around the city.  She also describes, quite wonderfully, how the city alters over her repeated visits: ‘With each return, my paths turned inwards as well.  I learned to see Kabul in fragments, to move through terrains of the imagination while remaining motionless.  I wandered through myths and memories…’.

Shadow City is an impressive debut, which sings with the glory of being in charge of one’s own agency, even in a geographical location which is often threatened by external forces.  Khan’s narrative is both rich and thorough, and gives a different, and worthy, perspective to the Kabul which many of us in the Western world are aware of.  Shadow City is fascinating, and serves to open a window onto both geography and society, politics and remnants of war.  Khan gives her readers an insider’s view of a city which most of us have largely seen in the wake of destruction.  She writes about the wonderful people which she meets, a sometimes fruitless search for reading material, and the way in which Kabul is slowly regaining itself.

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Reading the World: Asia (Part Two)

The second part of our reading adventure around Asia!  Again, I must apologise for the lack of diversity and overrepresentation of Japan overall; I will work on my Asian reading in future, and that is a promise.

97800992864311. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (China)
‘1971: Mao’s cultural Revolution is at its peak. Two sons of doctors, sent to ‘re-education’ camps, forced to carry buckets of excrement up and down mountain paths, have only their sense of humour to keep them going. Although the attractive daughter of the local tailor also helps to distract them from the task at hand. The boys’ true re-education starts, however, when they discover a hidden suitcase packed with the great Western novels of the nineteenth century. Their lives are transformed. And not only their lives: after listening to the stories of Balzac, the little seamstress will never be the same again.’

2. Geisha by Liza Dalby (Japan)
‘Liza Dalby, author of The Tale of Murasaki, is the only non-Japanese woman ever to have become a geisha. This is her unique insight into the extraordinary, closed world of the geisha, a world of grace, beauty and tradition that has long fascinated and enthralled the West. Taking us to the heart of a way of life normally hidden from the public gaze, Liza Dalby shows us the detailed reality that lies behind the bestselling Memoirs of a Geisha and opens our eyes to an ancient profession that continues to survive in today’s modern Japan.’

3. The Flamboya Tree: A Family’s Wartime Courage by Clara Olink Kelly (Indonesia)
‘When the Japanese invaded the beautiful Indonesian island of Java during the Second World War Clara Kelly was four years old. Her family was separated, her father sent to work on the Burma railway, and she together with her mother and her two brothers, one a six-week-old baby, was sent to a ‘women’s camp’. They were interned there until the end of the war. Clara’s descriptions of the appalling deprivations and impersonal brutality of the camp, easily recognisable as the same techniques used in the infamously cruel Japanes prisoner of war camps – standing in the baking heat for hours of ‘Tenko’ role-call, living on one cup of rice a day – are countered by the courage and resilience shown by all the internees, most poignantly her own mother.’

4. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri ((partially set in) India) 9780006551805
‘”When her grandmother learned of Ashima’s pregnancy, she was particularly thrilled at the prospect of naming the family’s first sahib. And so Ashima and Ashoke have agreed to put off the decision of what to name the baby until a letter comes…” For now, the label on his hospital cot reads simply BABY BOY GANGULI. But as time passes and still no letter arrives from India, American bureaucracy takes over and demands that ‘baby boy Ganguli’ be given a name. In a panic, his father decides to nickname him ‘Gogol’ – after his favourite writer. Brought up as an Indian in suburban America, Gogol Ganguli soon finds himself itching to cast off his awkward name, just as he longs to leave behind the inherited values of his Bengali parents. And so he sets off on his own path through life, a path strewn with conflicting loyalties, love and loss…Spanning three decades and crossing continents, Jhumpa Lahiri’s much-anticipated first novel is a triumph of humane story-telling. ‘

5. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (Afghanistan)
‘Afghanistan, 1975: Twelve-year-old Amir is desperate to win the local kite-fighting tournament and his loyal friend Hassan promises to help him. But neither of the boys can foresee what will happen to Hassan that afternoon, an event that is to shatter their lives. After the Russians invade and the family is forced to flee to America, Amir realises that one day he must return to Afghanistan under Taliban rule to find the one thing that his new world cannot grant him: redemption.’

97807475683396. Empress Orchid by Anchee Min (China)
‘To rescue her family from poverty and avoid marrying her slope-shouldered cousin, seventeen-year-old Orchid competes to be one of the Emperor’s wives. When she is chosen as a lower-ranking concubine she enters the erotically charged and ritualised Forbidden City. But beneath its immaculate facade lie whispers of murders and ghosts, and the thousands of concubines will stoop to any lengths to bear the Emperor’s son. Orchid trains herself in the art of pleasuring a man, bribes her way into the royal bed, and seduces the monarch, drawing the attention of dangerous foes. Little does she know that China will collapse around her, and that she will be its last Empress.’

7. Brick Lane by Monica Ali (Bangladesh, in part)
‘Still in her teenage years, Nazneen finds herself in an arranged marriage with a disappointed man who is twenty years older. Away from the mud and heat of her Bangladeshi village, home is now a cramped flat in a high-rise block in London’s East End. Nazneen knows not a word of English, and is forced to depend on her husband. But unlike him she is practical and wise, and befriends a fellow Asian girl Razia, who helps her understand the strange ways of her adopted new British home. Nazneen keeps in touch with her sister Hasina back in the village. But the rebellious Hasina has kicked against cultural tradition and run off in a ‘love marriage’ with the man of her dreams. When he suddenly turns violent, she is forced into the degrading job of garment girl in a cloth factory. Confined in her flat by tradition and family duty, Nazneen also sews furiously for a living, shut away with her buttons and linings – until the radical Karim steps unexpectedly into her life. On a background of racial conflict and tension, they embark on a love affair that forces Nazneen finally to take control of her fate. Strikingly imagined, gracious and funny, this novel is at once epic and intimate. Exploring the role of Fate in our lives – those who accept it; those who defy it – it traces the extraordinary transformation of an Asian girl, from cautious and shy to bold and dignified woman.’

8. Life of Pi by Yann Martel (India) 9780739377956
‘”The Jungle Book “meets “Not Wanted On the Voyage” in a triumph of storytelling and originality: a novel, as one character puts it, to make you believe in God. Piscine Molitor Patel, nicknamed Pi, lives in Pondicherry, India, where his family runs a zoo. Little Pi is a great reader. He devours books on Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, and to the surprise of his secular parents, becomes devoted to all three religions. When the parents decide to emigrate to Canada, the family boards a cargo ship with many of the animals that are going to new zoological homes in North America, and bravely sets sail for the New World. Alas, the ship sinks. A solitary lifeboat remains bobbing on the surface of the wild blue Pacific. In it are five survivors: Pi, a hyena, a zebra, an orang-utan and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger. With intelligence, daring and inexpressible fear, Pi manages to keep his wits about him as the animals begin to assert their places in the foodchain; it is the tiger, Richard Parker, with whom he must develop an inviolable understanding. ‘

9. A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute (Malaya)
‘Jean Paget is just twenty years old and working in Malaya when the Japanese invasion begins. When she is captured she joins a group of other European women and children whom the Japanese force to march for miles through the jungle – an experience that leads to the deaths of many. Due to her courageous spirit and ability to speak Malay, Jean takes on the role of leader of the sorry gaggle of prisoners and many end up owing their lives to her indomitable spirit. While on the march, the group run into some Australian prisoners, one of whom, Joe Harman, helps them steal some food, and is horrifically punished by the Japanese as a result. After the war, Jean tracks Joe down in Australia and together they begin to dream of surmounting the past and transforming his one-horse outback town into a thriving community like Alice Springs.’

10. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (China)
‘This novel, told from the viewpoints of four Chinese mothers and their four American-Chinese daughters, examines the nature of the mother-daughter relationship, and the problems of cultural identity the characters face.’

 

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Reading the World: Asia (Part One)

I am absolutely fascinated by Asia (in fact, my boyfriend and I are planning a trip there next year), but I have oddly read very few books set on the continent.  I had not realised quite how lacking my reading around Asia was until I started perusing lists for what to include in my recommendations.  With the exception of Japan and China, I have barely explored at all, in a literary sense.  That said, I have still managed to eke out two posts filled with Asian books, which I would heartily recommend.

1. Human Acts by Han Kang (South Korea; review here9781846275968
‘Gwangju, South Korea, 1980. In the wake of a viciously suppressed student uprising, a boy searches for his friend’s corpse, a consciousness searches for its abandoned body, and a brutalised country searches for a voice. In a sequence of interconnected chapters the victims and the bereaved encounter censorship, denial, forgiveness and the echoing agony of the original trauma. Human Acts is a universal book, utterly modern and profoundly timeless.’

2. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (Japan)
‘This is a seductive and evocative epic on an intimate scale, which tells the extraordinary story of a geisha girl. Summoning up more than twenty years of Japan’s most dramatic history, it uncovers a hidden world of eroticism and enchantment, exploitation and degredation. From a small fishing village in 1929, the tale moves to the glamorous and decadent heart of Kyoto in the 1930s, where a young peasant girl is sold as servant and apprentice to a renowned geisha house. She tells her story many years later from the Waldorf Astoria in New York; it exquisitely evokes another culture, a different time and the details of an extraordinary way of life. It conjures up the perfection and the ugliness of life behind rice-paper screens, where young girls learn the arts of the geisha – dancing and singing, how to wind the kimonok, how to walk and pour tea, and how to beguile the most powerful men.’

97800994484713. Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami (Japan; review here)
‘Twenty-two-year-old Sumire is in love with a woman seventeen years her senior. But whereas Miu is glamorous and successful, Sumire is an aspiring writer who dresses in an oversized second-hand coat and heavy boots like a character in a Kerouac novel. Surprised that she might, after all, be a lesbian, Sumire spends hours on the phone talking to her best friend K about the big questions in life: what is sexual desire and should she ever tell Miu how she feels for her. rustrated in his own love for Sumire, K consoles himself by having an affair with the mother of one of his pupils. Then a desperate Miu calls from a small Greek island and asks for his help, and he discovers something very strange has happened to Sumire.’

4. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (India)
‘This is the story of Rahel and Estha, twins growing up among the banana vats and peppercorns of their blind grandmother’s factory, and amid scenes of political turbulence in Kerala. Armed only with the innocence of youth, they fashion a childhood in the shade of the wreck that is their family: their lonely, lovely mother, their beloved Uncle Chacko (pickle baron, radical Marxist, bottom-pincher) and their sworn enemy, Baby Kochamma (ex-nun, incumbent grand-aunt). Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize-winning novel was the literary sensation of the 1990s: a story anchored to anguish but fuelled by wit and magic.’

5. The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad (Afghanistan) 9781844080472
‘Two weeks after September 11th, award-winning journalist Asne Seierstad went to Afghanistan to report on the conflict there. In the following spring she returned to live with an Afghan family for several months. For more than twenty years Sultan Khan defied the authorities – be they communist or Taliban – to supply books to the people of Kabul. He was arrested, interrogated and imprisoned by the communists and watched illiterate Taliban soldiers burn piles of his books in the street. He even resorted to hiding most of his stock in attics all over Kabul. But while Khan is passionate in his love of books and hatred of censorship, he is also a committed Muslim with strict views on family life. As an outsider, Seierstad is able to move between the private world of the women – including Khan’s two wives – and the more public lives of the men. And so we learn of proposals and marriages, suppression and abuse of power, crime and punishment. The result is a gripping and moving portrait of a family, and a clear-eyed assessment of a country struggling to free itself from history.’

6. Falling Leaves: The Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter by Adeline Yen Mah (China)
‘This is the story of an unwanted Chinese daughter, growing up during the Communist Revolution, blamed for her mother’s death, ignored by her millionaire father and unwanted by her Eurasian step mother. A story of greed, hatred and jealousy; a domestic drama is played against the extraordinary political events in China and Hong Kong. Written with the emotional force of a novel but with a vividness drawn from a personal and political background, “Falling Leaves” has been an enduring bestseller all over the world.’

97801410272897. The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (India)
‘High in the Himalayas sits a dilapidated mansion, home to three people, each dreaming of another time. The judge, broken by a world too messy for justice, is haunted by his past. His orphan granddaughter has fallen in love with her handsome tutor, despite their different backgrounds and ideals. The cook’s heart is with his son, who is working in a New York restaurant, mingling with an underclass from all over the globe as he seeks somewhere to call home. Around the house swirl the forces of revolution and change. Civil unrest is making itself felt, stirring up inner conflicts as powerful as those dividing the community, pitting the past against the present, nationalism against love, a small place against the troubles of a big world.’

8. Asleep by Banana Yoshimoto (Japan)
‘In these three novellas, Yoshimoto spins the stories of three young women bewitched into a spiritual sleep. Sly and mystical as a ghost story, with a touch of Kafkaesque surrealism.’

9. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (China) 9780747582922
‘Lily is the daughter of a humble farmer, and to her family she is just another expensive mouth to feed. Then, the local matchmaker delivers startling news: if Lily’s feet are bound properly, they will be flawless. In nineteenth-century China, where a woman’s eligibility is judged by the shape and size of her feet, this is extraordinary good luck. Lily, now, has the power to make a good marriage and change the fortunes of her family. To prepare for her new life, she must undergo the agonies of footbinding, learn nu shu, the famed secret women’s writing, and make a very special friend, Snow Flower. But, a bitter reversal of fortune is about to change everything.’

10. NP by Banana Yoshimoto (Japan)
‘In “N.P.,” a celebrated Japanese writer has committed suicide, leaving behind a collection of stories written in English, entitled “N.P.” But the book may never be published in his native Japan: each translator who takes up the ninety-eighth story chooses death too including Kazami’s boyfriend, Shoji. Haunted by Shoji s death, Kazami discovers the truth behind the ninety-eighth storyand comes to believe that everything that had happened was shockingly beautiful, enough to make you crazy.’

 

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Flash Reviews (10th March 2014)

‘And the Mountains Echoed’ by Khaled Hosseini

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini ****
I absolutely adore Hosseini’s work, and have been very much looking forward to reading And the Mountains Echoed ever since I first heard of its publication.  I requested several review copies of it but nothing came to fruition, and I was finally rewarded on Christmas Day with the beautiful hardback edition which I could not wait to begin.

The novel begins in Afghanistan in 1952, and its premise has the power to both warm and break the hearts of its readers:

“To Abdullah, [his sister] Pari… is everything.  More like a parent than a brother, Abdullah will do anything for her, even trading his only pair of shoes for a feather for her treasured collection.”

Hosseini is a marvel.  I adored the different narrative perspectives which he made use of throughout, and the way in which he followed many of his characters – in such a way, in fact, that the first impression of many of them was not the one which would linger in the mind after the final page had been closed.  He has such skill with addressing prejudices and with changing perceptions, and the entirety of the novel’s plot was rendered so vividly in consequence.  So many layers have been placed upon one another to create the whole, and such a rich book has been created.  As one may expect from reading the blurb of And the Mountains Echoed, it is tinged with sadness from the start, but the beauty within its pages is prevalent too.  It is a novel which is well worth reading, particularly if you have a day to spare, for it is a very difficult book to put down.

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‘The Septembers of Shiraz’ by Dalia Sofer

The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer ****

I so enjoyed my literary foray into Afghanistan in the aforementioned And the Mountains Echoed that I was longing to go back immediately.  I sadly did not have any books set in the general area on my to-read shelves, so I plumped instead for reading a novel which I first read some years ago, and which I did not really enjoy.  Rather than Afghanistan, The Septembers of Shiraz is set in Iran, but it provides a marvellous continuation from Hosseini’s work.

Upon re-reading this great novel, I struggle to see why I failed to like it the first time around.  The only thing which I can think of is that I read it during my A-Level examinations, and was therefore unable to fully immerse myself within it.  I am so, so glad that I thought to pick it back up.  The Septembers of Shiraz is set in Tehran in 1982, in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution.  It takes as its focus the character of Isaac Amin, a Jewish man living in the city with his wife and daughter.  At the very start of the novel, he is arrested, under the incorrect assumption that he is a spy.

Sofer’s descriptions are lovely, and her use of colour particularly is glorious.  It enables her to strongly create the sense of place throughout.  Despite this book’s length, I found it a surprisingly quick read, and will certainly be picking up more of the author’s work in future.  The Septembers of Shiraz is a highly recommended historical novel about one of the most pivotal periods in Iranian history.

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‘The Midnight Palace’ by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafon **
Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s author note in The Midnight Palace states that the novel is the second in a series, but nowhere does it say what it is a sequel to, or which series it makes up.  (NB: I am still clueless about this).  Judging from its blurb, the story looked relatively well contained, and so I decided to go ahead and read it anyway.  The book is billed as a ghost story – to be more precise, as ‘a haunting story for the young, and the young at heart’ – and I suppose it is one of sorts, but as it is aimed within the young adult market, any suspense or creepiness which Zafon is quite capable of building up feels lost in the slightly cushioned choice of genre.

The Midnight Palace begins in 1916 and takes Calcutta as its setting.  The Midnight Palace of the book’s title is an abandoned mansion, where seven boys from an orphanage meet.  The sense of place is well drawn throughout, and the first few pages – and, indeed, the blurb – definitely hold intrigue:

“1916, Calcutta. A man pauses for breath outside the ruins of Jheeter’s Gate station knowing he has only hours to live. Pursued by assassins, he must ensure the safety of two newborn twins, before disappearing into the night to meet his fate. 1932. Ben and his friends are due to leave the orphanage which has been their home for sixteen years. Tonight will be the final meeting of their secret club, in the old ruin they christened The Midnight Palace. Then Ben discovers he has a sister – and together they learn the tragic story of their past, as a shadowy figures lures them to a terrifying showdown in the ruins of Jheeter’s Gate station.”

Sadly, I found that the intrigue which was well built up at first was not consistent in the novel, and I soon found myself drifting away from the story and unable to get really ‘into’ it, as I have been able to do with the rest of Zafon’s tales. The pace was well realised, and I enjoyed the plot, but the distancing – made particularly apparent by the choice of a third person narrator – really held me back with my reading of the book.

The mysteries throughout are introduced at intervals, so I occasionally found that my interest in the book was piqued, but the entirety did not hook me as I expected it to.  I had no problems with the execution of the book or its storyline, as such, but I found its characters so flat and distinctly lacking in substance.  Even though The Midnight Palace was quite a quick read, I personally found it quite a slog to get through.  Those who already enjoy his books for younger readers, however, are sure to very much enjoy it.

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