Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga

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Published in conjunction with the BBC series, this brilliant book aims to dispel the myth that black British history began with the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948. We can all acknowledge that the post World War II period marked the greatest influx of immigration from non-white countries, but the story of black Britons goes back much further.

The first known black Briton is ‘Beachy Head Lady’, discovered in 2012 amongst a collection of skeletons that had been excavated between the late 19th century and the 1990s. Modern analysis techniques enabled archaeologists to determine that this woman had lived around AD125 to 245 and that she had lived in the southeast of England during much of her childhood. The bones suggested that she had eaten a good diet and had been carefully laid out for burial, meaning it unlikely that she was a slave or servant. Just from looking at the skull it was clear that this was a woman of sub-Saharan African origin – proof that there have been black immigrant living in Britain for literally thousands of years.

From this early point, Olusoga takes us through the ages, looking at the origins of slavery and the wealth that was made in the British ports through the trade of human beings, into the plantations of Jamaica, the slave fortresses of Sierra Leone, and looking into the racial politics of Britain. Britain, it seems, has never quite known how to contend with the fact that it established an empire that was 90% non-white. It seems unbelievable now that in World War I, in the face of dwindling British forces, politicians chose not

Of course, slavery is a key theme of this book, how could it not be. Prior to slavery being outlawed in British colonies, there was a battle fought in the courts of England. This was my favourite part of the book and concerns the story of Granville Sharp, an ordinary clerk. In 1765 a black slave named Jonathan Strong was beaten almost to death by his master David Lisle. Strong managed to get to the surgery of Granville Sharp’s brother William who was a doctor. They took him to St Bart’s hospital where he spent over four months recovering from terrible injuries. Sharp found the boy a job and all seemed well until 1767 when David Lisle spotted his former slave and decided to take him back in order to profit from his sale. He had Strong ‘recaptured’ but Strong had spent his time wisely and was now literate, sending notes to Granville Sharp. Sharp went to the Lord Mayor and both parties were brought before him. The law was unclear but clever manoeuvring led to Jonathan Strong going free. This marked the start of Granville Sharp’s campaign. Over the next years he helped many black former slaves and was busy raising awareness and support for the anti-slavery movement.

The above is just a snapshot of the fascinating stories that Olusoga has tracked down and presented in an interesting as well as factual manner. I enjoyed reading it alongside the series so that I could read about Bunce Island one day and then watch Olusoga in Freetown, Sierra Leone the next. I would say that this was a luxury that is unneeded though. This is a book that gives a wealth of information and I think I’ll be flicking through its pages for years to come.

 

The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

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I was given a proof of this novel back in August and came across it in my TBR pile this week, just in time for its publication date. This isn’t my usual choice of book but I was pleasantly surprised. It is a very gentle novel but with an engaging story and I read the entire thing in a couple of sittings. I was very impressed by the structure of the book as Hogan weaves two stories together with multiple vignettes, and it works.

Once a celebrated author of short stories now in his twilight years, Anthony Peardew has spent half his life lovingly collecting lost objects, trying to atone for a promise broken many years before.

Realising he is running out of time, he leaves his house and all its lost treasures to his assistant Laura, the one person he can trust to fulfil his legacy and reunite the thousands of objects with their rightful owners.

But the final wishes of the ‘Keeper of Lost Things’ have unforeseen repercussions which trigger a most serendipitous series of encounters…

This is Laura’s story and she did win me over. I thought that her character was developed nicely over the course of the novel, from a recently divorced woman afraid that she had nothing going for her to finding love (and a bit of wealth courtesy of Anthony Peardew). Her friendship with Sunshine, a young Down’s syndrome woman, was a highlight as I don’t think enough author’s consider including characters with disability, and Hogan didn’t sugarcoat the frustration that Laura sometimes felt when she wanted time alone.

Is it a criticism to say that the story arc was completely predictable? I’m not sure whether readers of this genre would want a twist or to be unsure how the story would end. Because of this it didn’t bother me too much that the ending was entirely inevitable. This could have been a pretty standard romance story but by including the second storyline, a bittersweet tale of unrequited love and great friendship, Hogan adds another dimension. I loved the little vignettes where we discover the provenance of the lost objects (again, some very sad, others happier). There was enough there to make this a satisfying read if you’re after something light and uplifting.

A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

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I actually bought this book a few months ago and it’s been in my TBR pile ever since, shifted to the top after being longlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Prize. This is the first in a series of books featuring Captain Sam Wyndham and set in early twentieth century India, still under British rule. Here’s the blurb:

Captain Sam Wyndham, former Scotland Yard detective, is a new arrival to Calcutta. 

Desperately seeking a fresh start after his experiences during the Great War, Wyndham has been recruited to head up a new post in the police force. But with barely a moment to acclimatise to his new life or to deal with the ghosts which still haunt him, Wyndham is caught up in a murder investigation that will take him into the dark underbelly of the British Raj.

A senior official has been murdered, and a note left in his mouth warns the British to quit India: or else. With rising political dissent and the stability of the Raj under threat, Wyndham and his two new colleagues – arrogant Inspector Digby and British-educated, but Indian-born Sergeant Banerjee, one of the few Indians to be recruited into the new CID – embark on an investigation that will take them from the luxurious parlours of wealthy British traders to the seedy opium dens of the city.

This is your typical police procedural with a twist. The old trope of the damaged alcoholic detective has been transformed into a widower with an opium addiction, but there is more to this book than reinventing the wheel in a new location. There are plenty of twists and turns and red herrings in the plotting to prevent me from guessing the culprit until the end, and yet it didn’t seem impossible for Wyndham to have reached his conclusion, his reasoning explained in a couple of sentences that made me go ‘Oh…of course.’

A highlight of this book for me was the wit of Wyndham. Written in first person, the reader gets his perspective of being transplanted from London to Calcutta, from his landlady’s awful cooking to the constant suffering with heat. Mukherjee writes Wyndham with a dark sense of humour and there were several paragraphs that made me smile. Below is one of my favourites:

I awoke to what’s euphemistically called birdsong. It was more of a bloody racket, nine parts screeching to one part singing. In England the dawn chorus is genteel and melodious and inspires poets to wax lyrical about sparrows and larks ascending. It’s blessedly short too. The poor creatures, demoralised by the damp and cold, sing a few bars to prove they’re still alive then pack it in and get on with the day. Things are different in Calcutta. There are no larks here, just big, fat greasy crows that start squawking at first light and go on for hours without a break. Nobody will ever write poetry about them.

In terms of historical crime, crime overall in fact, I think this book is up there. The plot is there, the writing is sublime at times, never overwrought but not too pared back. Mukherjee brings us new characters, a historical setting that is unfamiliar to most readers but is well constructed and easily visualised through Wyndham’s eyes, and hits the nail with a satisfying investigation. I look forward to the next book in the series, and have great hopes for the rest of the Jhalak longlist.

 

The Somnambulist by Essie Fox

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Named after the Millais painting, but also featuring a sleepwalking character, Essie Fox’s novel takes us back to later Victorian London (1880s) and is rooted in the gothic, reminding me greatly of Wilkie Collins who has inspired my own writing as well as Fox’s. Published in 2011, for any readers familiar with the genre there is a lot within this book which is familiar. Fox is the author of The Virtual Victorian, a blog dedicated to the era, and her love of the time period comes through in her writing.

When she spots an enigmatic stranger in the audience one night at Wilton’s Music Hall, seventeen-year-old Phoebe Turner doesn’t realise her life is about to change. Mr Samuels offers her the job of companion to his reclusive wife at Dinwood Court – a grand country house that may well be haunted and which holds the darkest of secrets.

Leaving the hustle of London’s East End, Phoebe finds herself disturbed by her new surroundings. She awakes to hear sobbing in the night and it soon becomes clear that she has not been chosen to work there by chance…

As far as the main plot of the book is concerned, this should have ticked every box for me. A young girl being taken away from everything and everyone she knows by a dark mysterious stranger. A country house where some of the staff do not behave as they should. There were so many questions that I had after the opening few chapters but they were annoyingly answered almost immediately! Although the novel is mainly written in first person from Phoebe’s perspective, Fox made the odd choice to include the odd chapter written in third person from Mr Samuels’ in which, since he knows all the answers to Phoebe’s questions, the reader is let into most of the secrets before Phoebe knows what’s going on. For me, the tension was lost. I spent the rest of the book waiting for Phoebe to work things out incredibly slowly.

My other issue was around the romantic elements of this novel. Phoebe falls for two men during the course of the book, purely from sight it seems. There was no introduction to her emotional state and therefore the romantic aspect never felt true to me. Also, there is a dodgy Tess/Alec d’Urberville style sex scene in the woods which I do think modern authors need to be wary of. If you’re going to include something that reads like a rape scene then it needs to be addressed further than the character feeling guilty the day afterwards, otherwise make it clearly consensual.

What I loved about this book was the attention to detail. At the beginning and end of the book there are several scenes at Wilton’s Music Hall which I enjoyed. The character of Old Riley, former dresser to Phoebe’s aunt, was brilliantly drawn, and I felt that Phoebe was a fuller character when around these familiar friends. I also thought that Mrs Samuels, the tragic reclusive wife, rang true and was pitched just right. Mr Samuels also, though I would have liked his chapters removed to keep his mysteries a little longer, then perhaps a few more scenes between he and Phoebe in London before she goes to the country.

Overall verdict: for a great Victorian mystery look elsewhere as this is no The Woman in White or Fingersmith, but for a light read that evokes the feeling of 19th century London, music hall and an air of the gothic this definitely fits the bill.

 

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

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I’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading Toni Morrison’s first novel, originally published back in 1970. Morrison’s reputation goes without saying, and I had to remind myself that this was her debut, a book that is so accomplished, so expertly structured in a non-traditional way that works to enhance the book rather than being just a gimmick. The theme of the book is the question of beauty; specifically Morrison asks why white beauty is the benchmark that we all (still) hold ourselves up to; why would a young black girl beg for God to give her blue eyes and think that without them that she will never be good enough.

Set in Ohio in the early 1940s, The Bluest Eye is the story of Pecola, a young girl growing up in a poor black family. Part written in first person from the perspective of Claudia, a schoolmate of Pecola’s, mainly written in a third person that shines a spotlight on the various characters that make up the local black community where the girls live, the structure is unusual but effective. Morrison looks at race particularly in this book, and is asking the question of her own community: why is lighter skin seen as superior? She uses examples of characters of a lighter complexion to show this point, most notably a schoolmate of Claudia and Pecola’s named Maureen Peal, a ‘high-yellow dream child with long brown hair  braided into two lynch ropes that hung down her back’. Where no one at school wants to sit next to dark skinned Pecola, everyone wants to be Maureen’s friend.

She enchanted the entire school. When teachers called on her, they smiled encouragingly. Black boys didn’t trip her in the halls; white boys didn’t stone her, white girls didn’t suck their teeth when she was assigned to be their work partners; black girls stepped aside when she wanted to use the sink in the girls’ toilet, and their eyes genuflected under sliding lids. She never had to search for anybody to eat with in the cafeteria – they flocked to the table of her choice, where she opened fastidious lunches, shaming our jelly-stained bread with egg-salad sandwiches cut into four dainty squares, pink-frosted cupcakes, stocks of celery and carrots, proud, dark apples. She even bought and liked white milk.

This isn’t an easy book in terms of subject matter. From the beginning we are told that Pecola will fall pregnant by her own father and so you spend the book waiting for that to happen. But Morrison is brave: there are no entirely good or entirely bad characters in this book, only flawed people. And so she shows us the upbringing of Pecola’s father, Cholly, how his mother and father desert him in turn, how he is shamed and abused, treated like an animal by a pair of white men in his teenage years. Even the scene of Pecola’s rape is seen from his point of view, not to justify it but to avoid dehumanising him. He, as with all of the characters, are real human beings, products of their place in society and all clinging on to their rung of the ladder, or falling off in the tragic case of Cholly and Pecola.

The Silk Merchant’s Daughter by Dinah Jefferies

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I had often seen Dinah Jefferies’ novels in bookshops and supermarkets, and wondered if they would be my cup of tea. I love Asia, and historical fiction, but I wasn’t sure if they would be a bit ‘Mills and Boon-like’. The title of her last two novels have also acted as a slight deterrent (The Tea Planter’s Wife, The Silk Merchant’s Daughter – why do woman have to be qualified by their relationships to men?). In the end I was attracted to a Goodreads giveaway, which I subsequently won, and had no reason not to read this book.

1952, French Indochina. Since her mother’s death, eighteen-year-old half-French, half-Vietnamese Nicole has been living in the shadow of her beautiful older sister, Sylvie. When Sylvie is handed control of the family silk business, Nicole is given an abandoned silk shop in the Vietnamese quarter of Hanoi. But the area is teeming with militant rebels who want to end French rule, by any means possible. For the first time, Nicole is awakened to the corruption of colonial rule – and her own family’s involvement shocks her to the core…

Tran, a notorious Vietnamese insurgent, seems to offer the perfect escape from her troubles, while Mark, a charming American trader, is the man she’s always dreamed of. But who can she rust in this world where no one is what they seem?

The setting of this book is brilliantly painted. I’ve been to Vietnam, though not to Hanoi where the majority of the novel takes place, and Jefferies brings the city to life. The plot of the book is also gripping. I had no prior knowledge about how the French colonial rule came to an end but the writing incorporates the history effortlessly. I trusted every detail. There was a little bit of me wishing that the author could have made the book a little grittier, but I appreciate that her readership would probably not have wanted this. There were executions, brothels, rape, murder, but all lightly written so as not to offend.

What I struggled with the most was Nicole herself. She seemed very immature and a bit cold: even when some horrific stuff is happening around her she cries for a bit and then gets over it. There is no emotional depth to her which I found to be an issue. At one point she runs away to join Tran and the Vietminh, and goes through an immense ordeal after the insurgents decide that anyone of mixed race cannot be trusted. There was barely a mention of her suffering, and the six months she spends up in the north is mainly skipped over leaving me feeling slightly cheated as potentially this could have been an interesting way to develop Nicole’s character. The only reason for this section to exist really was to get her out of the way for a period of time to set up the last act of the book. She was also far too trusting, and completely reliant on other people to make decisions for her. I had the impression that if left to her own devices she wouldn’t have survived.

Overall, this was a light and enjoyable read. I’d recommend it from a historical point of view and for Dinah Jefferies recreation of 1950s Vietnam, and the story itself works. Just skim over some of the more expositional sections and ignore Nicole’s passivity!

 

Marking Time by Elizabeth Jane Howard

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I loved The Light Years (Cazalet book 1) so much that I immediately checked out book 2 from the library. Marking Time has slightly less of a light hearted feel compared to its predecessor – set in 1939-1941 we are immediately into World War II and seeing its impact on the family.

Although there are several sections which focus on the family as a whole, the focus narrows in on the three older girls: Louise, Polly and Clary. Louise is finally allowed to go to drama school and meets an older admirer. Her story is perhaps the most interesting as she spends less and less time at Home Place. At seventeen, she is also discovering men and their various motivations for befriending her. I did feel sorry for her in her complete ignorance of what was going on, both with her own relationships and with those around her. Her friendship with new character Stella was a highlight. The only odd part of her strand of this is her relationship with Edward, her father. In the first book he tries to kiss Louise, and tries again in this book, and to take things further, but I wasn’t entirely sure that it was in character for him. He is definitely a womaniser and a serial cheat, but I couldn’t understand his motivation for molesting his own adult daughter.

Polly and Clary are still having their lessons with Miss Milliment and pottering around Home Place. I found these sections less interesting, purely because there was so much messing around that wasn’t needed. There was a strange hospital for babies (carried through from the first book) which then was moved elsewhere and rarely referred to again. There was also an awkward dalliance between two of the staff which was fairly amusing only because they cemented their relationship over tea and scones on an afternoon off. Clary’s journal was probably the most revealing device as this is the only part of the novel which is written in first person and therefore was quite insightful. I liked the development of the relationship between Clary and her step-mother Zoe, who has changed vastly from the insipid and vacuous character of the first book into a much wiser woman. When Rupert goes missing, the reactions of his wife and daughter are brilliantly depicted, while everyone around them maintains a very English stiff upper lip.

I had ups and downs with this book. I still think that the vast cast of characters is what slows it down – having to visit each person just so that the reader remembers who they are is time consuming and not always worthwhile – and Howard adds in a few more (though equally she bumps a few off so…). I think that there are enough threads left hanging to entice me to reserve the next book – will Louise get married? What will happen to Rupert? Will Sid get fed up of Rachel wanting nothing more than companionship and the odd kiss? I suspect that two out of these three will be revealed in Confusion…