Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman (USA)
Three Americans! And people say (read the Nobel Prize judges) that American literature is dead. I wonder if those books are really good or just decent. The two books from the shortlist that I long to read are Scottsboro and Burnt Shadows (review here) but in the longlist there were other books that I thought interesting. And by the way, why on earth isn't Nobel-prize winner Toni Morrison on the shortlist? In the past month I've read about her A Mercy a lot more than everything else on the shortlist (of some novels and authors I had never heard the name, but the prize is supposed to support women writers, isn't it?).
From the shortlist:
Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman (USA)
Alabama, 1931. A posse stops a freight train and arrests nine black youths. Their crime: fighting with white boys. Then two white girls emerge from another freight car, and fast as anyone can say Jim Crow, the cry of rape goes up. One of the girls sticks to her story. The other changes her tune, time and time again. A young journalist, whose only connection to the incident is her overheated social conscience, fights to save the nine youths from the electric chair, redeem the girl who repents her lie, and make amends for her own past.
Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie (Pakistan)
In a prison cell in the US, a man stands trembling, naked, fearfully waiting to be shipped to Guantánamo Bay. How did it come to this?
August 9th 1945, Nagasaki. Hiroko Tanaka steps out onto her veranda, taking in the view of the terraced slopes leading up to the sky. Wrapped in a kimono with three black cranes swooping across the back, she is twenty-one, in love with the man she is to marry, Konrad Weiss.
In a split second, the world turns white. In the next, it explodes with the sound of fire and the horror of realisation. In the numbing aftermath of a bomb that obliterates everything she has known, all that remains are the bird-shaped burns on her back, an indelible reminder of the world she has lost.
Two years later, in search of new beginnings, Hiroko travels to Delhi. There she walks into the lives of Konrad’s half-sister, her husband James Burton, and their employee Sajjad Ashraf, from whom she starts to learn Urdu. As the years unravel, new homes replace those left behind and old wars are seamlessly usurped by new conflicts. But the shadows of history – personal and political – are cast over the entwined worlds of the Burtons, Ashrafs and the Tanakas as they are transported from Pakistan to New York, and, ultimately, to Afghanistan in the immediate wake of 9/11. The ties that have bound them together over decades and generations are tested to the extreme, with unforeseeable consequences.
From the longlist:
When she eventually arrives on a strange tropical island, Doris discovers she is, in fact, a pig-ugly savage with a brain the size of a pea, whose only purpose in life is to please her mistress. Things don’t get any better when she becomes personal assistant to the formidable Bwana, a.k.a. Chief Kaga Konata Katumba I, or when she experiences the horrors of life in the sugarcane fields, where slaves are worked to death under the blazing sun. And all the while she dreams of escape, of finding those she has loved and lost, and returning home to her motherland, England…
Strange Music by Laura Fish (UK)
Moving from Torquay in Devon to Cinnamon Hill in Jamaica, Strange Music explores the notion that history consists of multiple, even contradictory, notions. Kaydia and Sheba narrate their stories in a distinctive patois. Like Jamaica, they struggle to escape a tragic past that seems ever present. Elizabeth is geographically and emotionally distant, at once consumed with domestic minutiae and, as she matures as a writer, painfully aware of the source of her wealth and privilege.
Love Marriage V. V. Ganeshananthan (USA)
Among the categories that bleed outside these two carefully delineated boundaries: the Self-Arranged Marriage, the Outside Marriage, the Cousin Marriage, the Village Marriage, the Marriage Abroad. There is the Marriage Without Consent. There is the Marriage Under Pressure. There is even Marrying the Enemy, who, it turns out, is not the Enemy at all.’
Yalini (the narrator and the end product of many marriages) and her generation are the children of their parents. But they live in other countries where the old rules of marriage – Love Marriage, Arranged Marriage and everything in between – do not apply. And parents who left Sri Lanka to escape the ethnic violence and to give their children opportunity, look on helplessly as those children embrace the one opportunity they didn’t intend them to take: Western Marriage.
The Lost Dog by Michelle De Kretser (Sri Lanka / Australia)
The novel loops back and forth in time from an Anglo-Indian childhood to the brittle contemporary Melbourne art scene, from Tom’s scratchy, poignant relationship with his ailing mother, to the unanswered puzzles of Nelly’s past.
A Mercy by Toni Morrison (USA)
Jacob is an Anglo-Dutch trader and adventurer, with a small holding in the harsh north. Despite his distaste for dealing in ‘flesh’, he takes a small slave girl in part payment for a bad debt from a plantation owner in Catholic Maryland. This is Florens, ‘with the hands of a slave and the feet of a Portuguese lady.’ Florens looks for love, first from Lina, an older servant woman at her new master’s house, but later from the handsome blacksmith, an African, never enslaved.
There are other voices and other stories: Lina, whose tribe was decimated by smallpox; their mistress, Rebekka, a victim of religious intolerance back in England; Sorrow, a strange girl who spent her early years at sea; and finally, Florens’ mother, who cast off her daughter in order to save her, leaving a child who may never exorcise that abandonment…
Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan (Malaysia)