Sunday 26 February 2017

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

'Frost-demons have no interest in mortal girls wed to mortal men. In the stories, they only come for the wild maiden.'

In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, an elderly servant tells stories of sorcery, folklore and the Winter King to the children of the family, tales of old magic frowned upon by the church.

But for the young, wild Vasya these are far more than just stories. She alone can see the house spirits that guard her home, and sense the growing forces of dark magic in the woods...

Goodreads description

I read Katherine Arden's novel in my Czech house, while outside some ice crystals like diamonds glistened on the deep pristine snow and others lined the boughs like white daggers. This is a country in which the Slavic spirits of the lakes, trees, thresholds and household stoves, still feature in popular culture. At the mill a few miles from my home they will burn an effegy of the Winter Goddess, Morana, to chase away winter. 

The Bear and the Nightingale is set in medieval Russia when the old Slavic gods and spirits were still very much part of everyday life and beliefs and the Orthodox church struggled to wean its followers off their pagan beliefs. This battle is at the heart of the book. When the priest attempts to turn the people from honouring the spirits who protect them, he brings disaster on their houses. The heroine, Vasya, who not only honours the old ways but actually sees the spirits around her, must seek the help of the Winter King. This sort of cultural clash is the stuff of magic realism, but I am not sure I would describe this book as magic realist.

Over on the Magic Realism Books Facebook Group we were recently having one of our regular discussions about definitions and genre and this book is a good example of how difficult it is to pigeonhole a book. This is in a way a novel in three parts and genres. The first part is straight historical fiction, the second magic realism and the third - fantasy. It is perhaps best defined as fairytale.

Vasya's problems take a turn for the worse when her father remarries and introduces a stepmother, who like Vasya can see the household spirits but unlike Vasya believes them to be devils. The stepmother character, although a fairytale archetype, is treated with understanding and indeed sympathy, and shown to be a victim of a society in which women are treated as no more than brood mares by their relatives, to be traded and married off without any say in the matter. Vasya is potentially also a victim of the same prejudice, but she is the wild girl of the description, both more modern and more pagan.

One of the strengths of the novel is Arden's writing, which is powerful and poetic. The story builds slowly, but that is no bad thing, although it did make the climax feel rather rushed. It is good therefore that this is the first book in a trilogy, as I am sure many readers will be left wanting more of the feisty Vasya.

I received this novel free from the publisher in return for a fair review. 

Monday 20 February 2017

Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia

Here is the dreamy and bittersweet story of a family divided by politics and geography by the Cuban revolution. It is the family story of Celia del Pino, and her husband, daughters and grandchildren, from the mid-1930s to 1980. Celia's story mirrors the magical realism of Cuba itself, a country of beauty and poverty, idealism and corruption. 
Goodreads description

This is the story of a three generations of Cuban women set before, during and after the revolution. Yes, it is about the women's very different political attitudes and the tension it causes, but for me it is more about family relationships. It is about how past actions can sour and spoil the present, how secrets left unspoken are dangerous, and about the need to rebel against your parents and vice versa. Indeed in many ways the political differences are a way of expressing these other more personal feelings, something that I suspect is often too. As a friend once told me – the real reason you go into exile is to get away from your mother.

In Cuba, Celia, the grandmother of the family, is an active Castro supporter who we first meet scanning the sea for signs of a potential American invasion. Also in Cuba is Felicia, a mentally unstable mother of three, who is drawn into an Afro-Cuban santeria cult. Meanwhile in America there are Celia's oldest daughter Lourdes, who is fiercely anti-Castro and pro the American dream, and her rebellious daughter, Pinar, who is a punk artist and feels a telepathic affinity with her grandmother. The divide between the women is greater than the sea that divides Cuba and America and which plays such a symbolic part in the life of Celia, the grandmother of the family.

The narrative moves from character to character and backwards and forwards between the two countries; at times the narrative is humourous and at others sad. As it does so, we learn what really drives the characters apart. Tragically the reason for the tensions between the women is often the actions of men. One yearns for a resolution to the family conflict, but I will not spoil the ending for you.

The writing is beautiful, magical, and, as one might expect, sensual. The characterization works very well, although I would have appreciated just one well-adjusted family member. Sometimes I thought the writing a little too literary. The narrative strand of Celia's unsent letters to her lover seemed too obvious a device to be credible. But these faults did not inhibit my enjoyment of the novel.

Monday 6 February 2017

The Famished Road by Ben Okri

Azaro is a spirit child, an abiku, existing, according to the African tradition, between life and death. Born into the human world, he must experience its joys and tragedies. His spirit companions come to him often, hounding him to leave his mortal world and join them in their idyllic one. Azaro foresees a trying life ahead, but he is born smiling. This is his story.
 Goodreads description

This is a novel that has been on my reading list from this blog's earliest days. It is generally regarded as a classic of modern magic realism. So when Open Road Media offered The Famished Road on Netgalley I jumped at the opportunity to read and review Okri's Booker Prize-winning work. Open Road Media is dedicated to releasing paper-based books as ebooks and I have been lucky enough to review several in the past.

Is The Famished Road magic realism? Many, including the author, have said no. And I don't blame them - it is hard book to categorize.

Okri comes from two traditions - that of the classical English-language fiction writers (he studied English literature in England) and the oral African tradition. Although Okri writes in English, his sensibility is very much an African one. For Azaro, his parents and indeed the other characters in the book, magic or the spirit world is part of their world view. Azaro , as a spirit child, is constantly moving between the two worlds. He sees the beckoning and sometimes threatening presence of spirits everywhere, especially during his forays into the forest, but also in the bars and of course on the road. In an interview he said:

I grew up in a tradition where there are simply more dimensions to reality: legends and myths and ancestors and spirits and death. You can't use Jane Austen to speak about African reality... Which brings the question: what is reality? Everyone's reality is different. For different perceptions of reality we need a different language... We like to think that the world is rational and precise and exactly how we see it, but something erupts in our reality which makes us sense that there's more to the fabric of life. I'm fascinated by the mysterious element that runs through our lives. Everyone is looking out of the world through their emotion and history. Nobody has an absolute reality.

If I am honest, there was rather too much spirit world in the book for me. Azaro is regularly kidnapped by spirits, and then runs away from them. He doesn't learn to stop wandering off in the forest, where many of these abductions take place. But then maybe my frustration stems from my need for a conventional (European?) story arc. The book took off for me when the reality of African politics starts to intrude into Azaro's life and his father finds a calling as a boxer. The magic is still there - for example his father's boxing bout with a man who is already dead - but it seems to have more of a purpose and the reality it operates in is more pointed. 

The characterisation throughout the book is firmly grounded in reality. The relationship of Azaro's parents is drawn with all its faults and all its love and you understand why this spirit child might choose to stay in the flawed world of humanity. The other character who stands out in the book is the bar and brothel owner Madame Koto. She is a complex, ambiguous and multilayered woman. At times kind, and others cruel, she dominates every scene she appears in. 
There is so much to write about this book and this brief review can only touch on a few issues. I can only say that this is an important book in the canon of magic realism and that Open Road Media are to be thanked for bringing it out as an ebook. I suggest if you interested in finding out more that you listen to the BBC interview with the author here: 

 I received this novel free from the publisher in return for a fair review.