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Armchair Travelling: Africa

I am a keen traveller in normal times, and am missing the freedom in planning trips, and exploring new places with my boyfriend. At present, like almost everyone else around the world, my only travelling is occurring through books, and watching foreign language films and Scandi-crime dramas on Netflix.

I created the first of the posts in this new series in February, alerting you to eight books set in Korea which I am keen to read, or which I count amongst my favourites. For my second post, I have selected three African countries, merely because I could not find a great deal of books set in each location. My birthday trip to Morocco was cancelled last year, and we could not go ahead with our planned safari to The Gambia and Senegal either; therefore, these are my choices.

The Gambia

Four Guineas by Elspeth Huxley

‘This account of Elspeth Huxley’s travels in Gambia, Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast and Nigeria gilds the Dark Continent–not because the author romanticizes it, but because she clarifies it…its history, superstitions and tribal ways, its beauty and power, its great contrasts and complexities. But this is no postcard and Huxley is not diverted by the exotic scenery and colorful natives. Instead, she pictures a region striving to maintain its heritage while finding a future. It’s like going ahead with one foot on the brake.’

A Season in Sinji by J.L. Carr

A Season in Sinji recreates life on a wartime RAF flying boat station in an African backwater. The dialogue evokes a wide range of characters, and in the bizarre cricket match which acts as a catharsis to the novel’s mounting passions, human dramas and irony are portrayed.’

Senegal

Ambiguous Adventure by Cheikh Hamidou Kane

‘Hailed by Chinua Achebe as one of the greatest African novels ever written, this long-unavailable classic tells the tale of young Samba Diallo, a devout pupil in a Koranic school in Senegal whose parents send him to Paris to study philosophy. But unknown to Samba, it is a desperate attempt by his parents to better understand the French colonial forces transforming their traditional way of life. Instead, for Samba, it seems an exciting adventure, and once in France he excels at his new studies and is delighted by his new “marvelous comprehension and total communion” with the Western world. Soon, though, he finds himself torn between the materialistic secularism and isolation of French civilization and the deeper spiritual influences of his homeland. As Samba puts it: “I have become the two.” Written in an elegant, lyrical prose, Ambiguous Adventure is a masterful expression of the immigrant experience and the repercussions of colonialism, and a great work of literature about the uneasy relationship between Islamic Africa and the West—a relationship more important today than ever before.’

Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye

‘In this new novel, the first by a black woman ever to win the coveted Prix Goncourt, Marie NDiaye creates a luminous narrative triptych as harrowing as it is beautiful. This is the story of three women who say no: Norah, a French-born lawyer who finds herself in Senegal, summoned by her estranged, tyrannical father to save another victim of his paternity; Fanta, who leaves a modest but contented life as a teacher in Dakar to follow her white boyfriend back to France, where his delusional depression and sense of failure poison everything; and Khady, a penniless widow put out by her husband’s family with nothing but the name of a distant cousin (the aforementioned Fanta) who lives in France, a place Khady can scarcely conceive of but toward which she must now take desperate flight. With lyrical intensity, Marie NDiaye masterfully evokes the relentless denial of dignity, to say nothing of happiness, in these lives caught between Africa and Europe. We see with stunning emotional exactitude how ordinary women discover unimagined reserves of strength, even as their humanity is chipped away. Three Strong Women admits us to an immigrant experience rarely if ever examined in fiction, but even more into the depths of the suffering heart.’

Morocco

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami

‘Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits evokes the grit and enduring grace that is modern Morocco. As four Moroccans illegally cross the Strait of Gibraltar in an inflatable boat headed for Spain, author Laila Lalami asks, What has driven them to risk their lives? And will the rewards prove to be worth the danger? There’s Murad, a gentle, unemployed man who’s been reduced to hustling tourists around Tangier; Halima, who’s fleeing her drunken husband and the slums of Casablanca; Aziz, who must leave behind his devoted wife in hope of securing work in Spain; and Faten, a student and religious fanatic whose faith is at odds with an influential man determined to destroy her future. Sensitively written with beauty and boldness, this is a gripping book about what propels people to risk their lives in search of a better future.’

A House in Fez: Building a Life in the Ancient Heart of Morocco by Suzanna Clarke

‘The Medina — the Old City — of Fez is the best-preserved, medieval walled city in the world. Inside this vibrant Moroccan community, internet cafes and mobile phones coexist with a maze of donkey-trod alleyways, thousand-year-old sewer systems, and Arab-style houses, gorgeous with intricate, if often shabby, mosaic work. While vacationing in Morocco, Suzanna Clarke and her husband, Sandy, are inspired to buy a dilapidated, centuries-old riad in Fez with the aim of restoring it to its original splendor, using only traditional craftsmen and handmade materials. So begins a remarkable adventure that is bewildering, at times hilarious, and ultimately immensely rewarding. A House in Fez chronicles their meticulous restoration, but it is also a journey into Moroccan customs and lore and a window into the lives of its people as friendships blossom. When the riad is finally returned to its former glory, Suzanna finds she has not just restored an old house, but also her soul.’

Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie

‘In Agatha Christie’s gripping international thriller Destination Unknown, a woman at the end of her rope chooses a more exciting way to die when she embarks upon an almost certain suicide mission to find a missing scientist. When a number of leading scientists disappear without a trace, concern grows within the international intelligence community. And the one woman who appears to hold the key to the mystery is dying from injuries sustained in a plane crash. Meanwhile, in a Casablanca hotel room, Hilary Craven prepares to take her own life. But her suicide attempt is about to be interrupted by a man who will offer her an altogether more thrilling way to die…’

Have you read any of these books? Where have you been travelling to through literature lately? If you have any countries which you’re itching to travel to, and wish me to include in this series, please just let me know!

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‘Tangerine’ by Christine Mangan ****

Christine Mangan’s debut novel, Tangerine, was published in 2018, and received relatively mixed reviews.  I am fascinated by Moroccan history and culture, and to me, this novel – which Joyce Carol Oates bills as a collaboration between Donna Tartt, Gillian Flynn, and Patricia Highsmith, and which Suzanne Rindell says left her feeling as though she had travelled to Tangier ‘with Daphne du Maurier’s literary heir as my guide’ – was completely enticing.

9781408709979The protagonists of Tangerine are two women, the recently married Alice Shipley, and a past acquaintance of hers, Lucy Mason: ‘After the horrific accident at Bennington, the two friends – once inseparable roommates – haven’t spoken in over a year.’ Alice and Lucy were roommates at Bennington College in Vermont, attending under quite different circumstances.  Alice was paid for by the legacy of her deceased parents, and Lucy won a scholarship.

Since her arrival in the Moroccan city of Tangier with her husband, John – chiefly so that she can ‘forget, leave the past behind’ – Alice has been reluctant to leave their apartment and explore.  She finds it impossible to assimilate into her new surroundings: ‘From the little I knew of it already, I had realized what a hard place it could be.  It was not a place where one simply arrived and belonged – no, I imagined that it was a process, a trial, even an initiation of sorts, one that only the bravest survived.  It was a place that inspired rebellion, a place that demanded it, of its people, its citizens.  A place where everyone had to constantly adapt, struggle, fight for what they wanted.’

The unexpected arrival of Lucy, ‘always fearless and independent, helps Alice emerge from her flat and explore the country.’  Soon, however, a ‘familiar feeling starts to overtake Alice – she feels controlled and stifled by Lucy at every turn.’  A twist is added into the plot when John goes missing, and Alice is forced to start questioning ‘everything around her: her relationship with her enigmatic friend, her decision to come to Tangier, and her very own state of mind.’

The prologue of Tangerine begins in Spain, in what I felt was rather a gripping manner: ‘It takes three men to pull the body from the water…  They are strangers to each other, these three, but they are bonded now by something deeper than kinship.’  At this point, the as yet unnamed narrator steps in: ‘Of course, only the first bit is true – the rest I have simply imagined.  I have time for such things now as I sit and gaze across the room, out the window.’  In this prologue, the narrator recalls Tangier: ‘Most times, the city appears as a fevered dream, a sparkling mirage that I can just about convince myself was real once, that I was there and that the people and places that I recall were tangible and not translucent ghosts that my mind has conjured up.  Time moves quickly, I have found, turning people and places into first history and then later stories.  I have trouble remembering the difference, for my mind often plays tricks on me now.’

The novel then moves to Tangier in 1956.  The chapters switch between the first person voices of both Alice and Lucy.  We are privy to a lot of details in the marriage between Alice and John, and the way in which their new life in Tangier begins to separate them.  Alice narrates: ‘And each month, John continued to vanish as well: into his mysterious city that he loved with a fierceness I could not understanding, exploring her secrets on his own, while I remained inside – my very own captor and captive.’

Lucy’s perspective, alongside Alice’s, adds depth to the heady sights and smells of Morocco.  As the boat which she is travelling on comes within sight of Tangier, she observes: ‘I craned my neck, impatient now to grasp my first, real glimpse of Africa.  For already, there was the smell of her, beckoning us from the shore – the promises of the unknown, of something infinitely deeper, richer, than anything I had ever experienced in the cold streets of New York.’  She makes her way to Alice’s apartment entirely unannounced, and finds signs of trouble in her old friend and her husband: ‘My eyes moved between the two of them, the pair of them, and I decided that something was most certainly amiss – I could feel it, for it seemed to fill the very room around me, crackling and sizzling, calling out to be noticed.  Watching her from the corner of my eye, I could not help but think how haunted she looked – a strange word, I knew, and yet it was the only one that seemed to apply.  She was haunted by the ghost of her former self.’

The narrative perspectives used here are quite similar in terms of tone, phrasing, and style.  At first, this did tend to make it a little difficult to differentiate between both characters, but their voices become clearer as the novel goes on. The similarity between their voices did not hinder my reading experience.  The dual perspective worked incredibly well, particularly as the story unfolded.  The chapters, which move between the present day in Tangier and Lucy and Alice’s experiences in college, add a lot of depth, and are packed with emotion.

I was pulled into Tangerine immediately.  The novel held so much promise for me, as it deals with a lot of elements that I actively look for when selecting which books to read.  The novel is set at a point in Morocco’s history which was absolutely pivotal to its future, with the agreement in place towards it becoming an independent country.  The sense of place which Mangan has created is strong and believable.  One of the other real strengths in Tangerine is the unsettling feeling which the author has created, particularly evident as the novel reaches a third of the way through.  Mangan’s writing is strong, layered, and enjoyable, and the entire story has been so well paced and plotted.  Tangerine is emotionally taught, and has left me longing for a trip to Morocco.

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One From the Archive: Two Favourite Contemporary Novels

First published in January 2017.

I have linked my relatively short reviews of Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons (2016) and Vendela Vida’s The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty (2015) for two reasons – firstly, I adored them both, and secondly, there is a very thin and tenuous thematic thread which links the two.

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller *****
“Gil’s wife, Ingrid has been missing, presumed drowned, for twelve years. A possible sighting brings their children, Nan and Flora, home. Together they begin to confront the mystery of their mother. Is Ingrid dead? Or did she leave? And do the letters hidden within Gil’s books hold the answer to the truth behind his marriage, a truth hidden from everyone including his own children?”
9780241252154
I very much enjoyed Fuller’s first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, and was very much looking forward to her second effort, Swimming Lessons.  I am pleased to report that I enjoyed it even more than her debut.  The plot very much appealed to me, and it was compelling from the outset.

Ingrid’s voice is rich and distinct; she has such agency.  The inclusion of her letters allows her to be present within the story despite not being visible in the physical world.  Each of the backstories which Fuller has created for her characters are just as vivid as their present; there is a wonderful sense of realism here.  The structure perfectly matches the plot, and the presence of the landscape is exquisite; it is always there, affecting the characters and, in part, being affected by them.  There is so much depth and emotion within Swimming Lessons, and so much to adore.

 

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida *****
In Vendela Vida’s taut and mesmerizing novel of ideas, a woman travels to Casablanca, Morocco, on mysterious business. While checking into her hotel, the woman is robbed of her wallet and passport all of her money and identification. Stripped of her identity, she feels burdened by the crime yet strangely liberated by her sudden freedom to be anyone she wants to be.  Told with vibrant, lush detail and a wicked sense of humor, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty is part literary mystery, part psychological thriller an unforgettable novel that explores free will, power, and a woman s right to choose not her past, perhaps not her present, but certainly her future.9780062110916

I have very much enjoyed Vendela Vida’s previous novels; they provide fantastic, intelligent escapism, which grips one from the beginning through to the end, and give realistic glimpses into vivid and vibrant places.  Her most recent effort, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty is no different, and the fact that Morocco is high on my travel list made me look forward to reading it even more.

The second person perspective was used masterfully throughout, and worked incredibly well.  The story itself is relatively simple on the whole, but it has a complexity all of its own.  The sense of unease which creeps in is almost unrecognisable at first, but – in part due to the narrative voice used – the reader becomes so invested within the story that its tension soon heightens.  Vida plays with the concepts of identity and loss in her tautly written novel, which has been extremely well paced.  Little clues are left along the way, but one never quite guesses what will happen next.  The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty is a whirlwind of a novel, which begs for compulsive reading, and which deserves a far wider readership than it seems to have currently.

 

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

Two Favourite Contemporary Novels: ‘Swimming Lessons’ and ‘The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty’

I have linked my relatively short reviews of Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons (2016) and Vendela Vida’s The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty (2015) for two reasons – firstly, I adored them both, and secondly, there is a very thin and tenuous thematic thread which links the two.

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller *****
“Gil’s wife, Ingrid has been missing, presumed drowned, for twelve years. A possible sighting brings their children, Nan and Flora, home. Together they begin to confront the mystery of their mother. Is Ingrid dead? Or did she leave? And do the letters hidden within Gil’s books hold the answer to the truth behind his marriage, a truth hidden from everyone including his own children?”
9780241252154
I very much enjoyed Fuller’s first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, and was very much looking forward to her second effort, Swimming Lessons.  I am pleased to report that I enjoyed it even more than her debut.  The plot very much appealed to me, and it was compelling from the outset.

Ingrid’s voice is rich and distinct; she has such agency.  The inclusion of her letters allows her to be present within the story despite not being visible in the physical world.  Each of the backstories which Fuller has created for her characters are just as vivid as their present; there is a wonderful sense of realism here.  The structure perfectly matches the plot, and the presence of the landscape is exquisite; it is always there, affecting the characters and, in part, being affected by them.  There is so much depth and emotion within Swimming Lessons, and so much to adore.

 

 

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida *****
In Vendela Vida’s taut and mesmerizing novel of ideas, a woman travels to Casablanca, Morocco, on mysterious business. While checking into her hotel, the woman is robbed of her wallet and passport all of her money and identification. Stripped of her identity, she feels burdened by the crime yet strangely liberated by her sudden freedom to be anyone she wants to be.  Told with vibrant, lush detail and a wicked sense of humor, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty is part literary mystery, part psychological thriller an unforgettable novel that explores free will, power, and a woman s right to choose not her past, perhaps not her present, but certainly her future.9780062110916

I have very much enjoyed Vendela Vida’s previous novels; they provide fantastic, intelligent escapism, which grips one from the beginning through to the end, and give realistic glimpses into vivid and vibrant places.  Her most recent effort, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty is no different, and the fact that Morocco is high on my travel list made me look forward to reading it even more.

The second person perspective was used masterfully throughout, and worked incredibly well.  The story itself is relatively simple on the whole, but it has a complexity all of its own.  The sense of unease which creeps in is almost unrecognisable at first, but – in part due to the narrative voice used – the reader becomes so invested within the story that its tension soon heightens.  Vida plays with the concepts of identity and loss in her tautly written novel, which has been extremely well paced.  Little clues are left along the way, but one never quite guesses what will happen next.  The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty is a whirlwind of a novel, which begs for compulsive reading, and which deserves a far wider readership than it seems to have currently.

 

Purchase from The Book Depository