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The Book Trail: From Hanya Yanigahara to Karin Altenberg

I am beginning this edition of the Book Trail with something a little different; a novel which I have not read as yet, but remember seeing a lot of buzz about when it was released.  Whilst I can’t promise I’ll be able to have read and reviewed it by the time this year ends, it is definitely on my radar, and I will be picking it up at the first opportunity.  As ever, I am using the Goodreads ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool to generate this list.

1. The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanigahara 39789318
In 1950, Norton Perina, a young American doctor, joins an anthropological expedition to a remote Micronesian island in search of a rumoured lost tribe. There he encounters a strange group of jungle-dwellers who appear to have attained a form of immortality that preserves the body but not the mind. Perina uncovers their secret and returns with it to America, where he soon finds great success. But his discovery has come at a terrible cost, not only for the islanders, but for Perina himself.

2. Monstress by Lysley Tenorio
A luminous collection of heartbreaking, vivid, startling, and gloriously unique stories set amongst the Filipino-American communities of California and the Philippines. Already the worthy recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Whiting Writer’s Award, and a Stegner Fellowship, Tenorio brilliantly explores the need to find connections, the melancholy of isolation, and the sometimes suffocating ties of family in tales that range from a California army base to a steamy moviehouse in Manilla, to the dangerous false glitter of Hollywood.

129646653. Aerogrammes by Tania James
‘This is a bravura collection of short stories set in locales as varied as London, Sierra Leone, and the American Midwest that captures the yearning and dislocation of young men and women around the world.  In “Lion and Panther in London,” a turn-of-the-century Indian wrestler arrives in London desperate to prove himself champion of the world, only to find the city mysteriously absent of challengers. In “Light & Luminous,” a gifted dance instructor falls victim to her own vanity when a student competition allows her a final encore.  In “The Scriptological Review: A Last Letter from the Editor,” a young man obsessively studies his father’s handwriting in hopes of making sense of his death. And in the marvelous “What to Do with Henry,” a white woman from Ohio takes in the illegitimate child her husband left behind in Sierra Leone, as well as an orphaned chimpanzee who comes to anchor this strange new family.  With exuberance and compassion, Tania James once again draws us into the lives of damaged, driven, and beautifully complicated characters who quietly strive for human connection.
4. Miss Timmins’ School for Girls by Nayana Currimbhoy
A murder at a British boarding school in the hills of western India launches a young teacher on the journey of a lifetime.  In 1974, three weeks before her twenty-first birthday, Charulata Apte arrives at Miss Timmins’ School for Girls in Panchgani. Shy, sheltered, and running from a scandal that disgraced her Brahmin family, Charu finds herself teaching Shakespeare to rich Indian girls in a boarding school still run like an outpost of the British Empire. In this small, foreign universe, Charu is drawn to the charismatic teacher Moira Prince, who introduces her to pot-smoking hippies, rock ‘n’ roll, and freedoms she never knew existed.  Then one monsoon night, a body is found at the bottom of a cliff, and the ordered worlds of school and town are thrown into chaos. When Charu is implicated in the murder—a case three intrepid schoolgirls take it upon themselves to solve—Charu’s real education begins. A love story and a murder mystery, Miss Timmins’ School for Girls is, ultimately, a coming-of-age tale set against the turbulence of the 1970s as it played out in one small corner of India.
5. The Bay of Foxes by Sheila Kohler 13073377
In 1978, Dawit, a young, beautiful, and educated Ethiopian refugee, roams the streets of Paris. By chance, he spots the famous French author M., who at sixty is at the height of her fame. Seduced by Dawit’s grace and his moving story, M. invites him to live with her. He makes himself indispensable, or so he thinks. When M. brings him to her Sardinian villa, beside the Bay of Foxes, Dawit finds love and temptation—and perfects the art of deception.
6. Little Woman in Blue by Jeannine Atkins
May Alcott spends her days sewing blue shirts for Union soldiers, but she dreams of painting a masterpiece—which many say is impossible for a woman—and of finding love, too. When she reads her sister’s wildly popular novel, Little Women, she is stung by Louisa’s portrayal of her as “Amy,” the youngest of four sisters who trades her desire to succeed as an artist for the joys of hearth and home. Determined to prove her talent, May makes plans to move far from Massachusetts and make a life for herself with room for both watercolors and a wedding dress. Can she succeed? And if she does, what price will she have to pay? Based on May Alcott’s letters and diaries, as well as memoirs written by her neighbors, Little Woman in Blue puts May at the center of the story she might have told about sisterhood and rivalry in an extraordinary family.
111858397. The Luminist by David Rocklin
Photography comprises the bright, tensile thread in the sweep of The Luminist, drawing tight a narrative that shifts between the prejudices and passions of Victorian England and those of colonial Ceylon.  It binds the destinies of Catherine Colebrook, the proper wife of a fading diplomat, who rebels against every convention to chase the romance of science through her lens, and Eligius, an Indian teenager thrust into servitude after his father is killed demanding native rights.  The Luminist is a weave of legend and history, science and art, politics and domesticity that are symphonic themes in the main title, the story of an enduring and forbidden friendship. Catherine and Eligius must each struggle with internal forces that inspire them and societal pressures that command them. Rocklin’s is a bold landscape, against which an intimate drama is poignantly played out. Just in this way, our minds recall in every detail the photo snapped at the moment of pain, while all the lovely scenes seem to run together.
8. Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg
A portrait of a marriage, a meditation on faith, and a journey of conquest and self-discovery, Island of Wings is a passionate and atmospheric novel reminiscent of Wuthering Heights.  July, 1830. On the ten-hour sail west from the Hebrides to the islands of St. Kilda, everything lies ahead for Lizzie and Neil McKenzie. Neil is to become the minister to the small community of islanders, and Lizzie, his new wife, is pregnant with their first child. Neil’s journey is evangelical: a testing and strengthening of his own faith against the old pagan ways of the St. Kildans, but it is also a passage to atonement. For Lizzie — bright, beautiful, and devoted — this is an adventure, a voyage into the unknown. She is sure only of her loyalty and love for her husband, but everything that happens from now on will challenge all her certainties.  As the two adjust to life on an exposed archipelago on the edge of civilization, where the natives live in squalor and subsist on a diet of seabirds, and babies perish mysteriously in their first week, their marriage — and their sanity — is threatened. Is Lizzie a willful temptress drawing him away from his faith? Is Neil’s zealous Christianity unhinging into madness? And who, or what, is haunting the moors and cliff-tops?  Exquisitely written and profoundly moving, Island of Wings is more than just an account of a marriage in peril — it is also a richly imagined novel about two people struggling to keep their love, and their family, alive in a place of terrible hardship and tumultuous beauty.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which would you recommend?

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‘The Tusk That Did the Damage’ by Tania James ****

I hadn’t heard of Tania James’ The Tusk That Did the Damage before I saw it featured on a couple of Instagram accounts which I follow, with the announcement that it had been shortlisted for the 2016 Dylan Thomas Prize.  Whilst this is not a prize which I necessarily read my way around (I am more of a fan of the used-to-be-Orange-and-is-now-Baileys Prize), my interest in the book was piqued enough for me to look further into the novel.  When I had read the blurb and discovered that my library had a brand new copy, I requested it immediately.

The Tusk That Did the Damage is set in southern India, a location in which James has interestingly merged East and West.  In it, she demonstrates how necessary conservation is, and the horrors which we are doing to our world, as well as the horrors of financial exploitation of creatures and natural habitats.  We follow three stories; that of The Gravedigger, an angry elephant who wreaks havoc, a young man named Manu whose brother Jayan is in the elephant poaching ‘trade’, and an American graduate named Emma, who has travelled to the region in order to make a film in a wildlife reserve with her friend Teddy.  These stories are separate from one another on the whole, but all take the elephant as their central focus, and sit wonderfully together in consequence.  I knew, from the book’s very beginning, that I hadn’t read a novel like this in a long time, and was immediately captivated by its originality.9781846559532

The Tusk That Did the Damage opens with a particularly brutal scene, in which the mother of a young elephant is shot before his eyes.  This portion is told from the elephant’s perspective; whilst not an ‘I’ narrative, he is the sole focus, which makes it all the harder to read.   For James, no holds are barred in her evocation of the situation:

‘A blast split the silence.  The Gravedigger staggered, caught in a carousel of legs and screaming.  The man in the tree was pointing a long-snouted gun.  Another blast…  The Gravedigger whirled in search of his mother, and when at last he caught her scent, he found her roaring in the face of the gunman who aimed into her mouth and shot.’

The use of different narrative styles and perspectives was put to good use here.  I was immediately invested in the story, in which backdrops have been realistically evoked, and characters come to life.  The real stars of the novel though, are the elephants; they are described in the most human manner:

‘During the moment of mother-calf reunion, Teddy hadn’t fiddled with the zoom, had let the action unfold, giving wide berth to these twining trunks, whose ministrations seemed to suggest comfort and tenderness and yet seemed somehow private, primal, on a plane of communication we could glimpse only directly.’

Focus is given to tiny details which would be so easy to miss; the ‘powdery smell’ of a parakeet, a mouth as a ‘hollow of astonishment’, and a range of mountains sitting ‘gaunt and blue’.  The relationships which James presents, both between humans and animals, as well as the links between the two, have been examined with a fine tooth comb.  There is a strength in the conversations too:

‘Ravi leaned against the door.  “An elephant killed someone,” he said.  In Sitamala, near to my mother’s place.”
“What?  That’s terrible.”
He nodded, absorbed in thought.  There was the distant, drifting silence again, the indecipherable knit of his brow.
“Did you know the person?”
He was speechless so long I thought he hadn’t heard me.  “I know the elephant,” he said finally. “Everyone does.”

The Tusk That Did the Damage is a serious book, but boy, is it compelling.  The cultural details and local language used help to build a stronger sense of place, and show how informed James is about the place and issues she is writing about.  It is not simply a good read; it is an important novel, which demonstrates just how fragile the world really is.  Perhaps Jonathan Safran Foer sums it up the best, when he calls it ‘a compulsively readable, devastating novel’.  I heartily look forward to what she will come up with next.

Purchase from The Book Depository