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Book Nook - 29-01-2019

Tuesday, January 29, 2019
By Deepa Gahlot

There are Lit Fests taking place all over the country, but the community of readers is dwindling. Still, passionate book lovers would like to know what others like themselves are reading. This Book Nook suggests some books, but would also like to connect with serious readers, or even casual airport book browsers. Do write in about books you have loved or hated and why. The best entries will be shared on this page. Please send your recommendations to adc.booknook@gmail.com

The Sky Is The Limit
Canadian writer Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, shortlisted for the Man Booker prize last year, and winner of other awards and much acclaim, is set in the nineteenth century when slavery was still in existence, with all its attendant horrors.

The protagonist of this picaresque novel is George Washington Black or “Wash”, who started life on a sugar plantation in Barbados, under a very cruel master. At the start of the book, he is eleven years old, an orphan, who is looked after by another slave he calls Big Kit. His fate would have been like the other “field niggers” had he not been picked by his master’s eccentric, science-obsessed brother Christopher “Titch” Wilde to be his personal assistant. Titch treats Wash like a human being, and when he discovers the boy’s astonishing talent for drawing, he involves him even more in his researches. Much to the annoyance of his barbaric brother, Erasmus, Titch is busy building a hot air balloon, that he calls a cloud-cutter. During the process, Wash is burnt in an accidental blast and his face disfigured, which, strangely, does not hamper his destiny in any way.

When the Wildes’ cousin Philip, bringing news of their father’s death in the Arctic, inexplicably shoots himself the presence of Wash, Titch knows that the slave will probably be brutally killed for no fault of his. The two of them escape on the balloon, crash into a ship and then land in America, pursued by a slave hunter, hired by Erasmus.

Titch, who endangered his own life for Wash, abandons him in the Arctic wastes, where they go to look for Wilde senior, who, it turns out, was not dead, but living with his partner Peter Haas, amidst the natives. Wash’s amazing luck holds, as he survives, travels, to Nova Scotia and then London with a marine biologist Dr Goff and his daughter Tana, who falls in love with him. His life’s mission, however, becomes the search for Titch, or at least some information of where he is, and why he left him behind in middle of nowhere.

The book may be densely plotted and its twists often contrived, but its vision is still breathtaking wide, the narration of Wash’s adventure always gripping, and the prose evocative. All of which make it a rewarding read.

Washington Black
by Esi Edugyan
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
Pages: 352

 

Excerpt of  Washington Black
I might have been ten, eleven years old – I cannot say for certain – when my first master died.

No one grieved him; in the fields we hung our heads, keen­ing, grieving for ourselves and the estate sale that must follow. He died very old. I saw him only at a distance: stooped, thin, asleep in a shaded chair on the lawn, a blanket at his lap. I think now he was like a specimen preserved in a bottle. He had outlived a mad king, outlived the slave trade itself, had seen the fall of the French Empire and the rise of the British and the dawn of the industrial age, and his usefulness, surely, had passed. On that last evening I remember crouching on my bare heels in the stony dirt of Faith Plantation and pressing a palm flat against Big Kit's calf, feeling the heat of her skin baking up out of it, the strength and power of her, while the red sun­light settled in the cane all around us. Together, silent, we watched as the overseers shouldered the coffin down from the Great House. They slid it rasping into the straw of the wagon and, dropping the rail into place with a bang, rode rattling away.

That was how it began: me and Big Kit, watching the dead go free.

His nephew arrived one morning eighteen weeks later at the head of a trail of dust-covered carriages driven directly from the harbour at Bridge Town. That the estate had not been sold off was, we thought at the time, a mercy. The carriages creaked their slow way up the soft embankment, shaded by palm trees. On a flatbed wagon at the rear of the caravan sat a strange object, draped in canvas, as large as the whipping boulder in the small field. I could not imagine its purpose. All this I remember well, for I was again with Big Kit at the edge of the cane—I rarely left her side in those days—and I saw Gaius and Immanuel stiffly open the carriage door and extend the step. I could see, at the Great House, pretty Émilie, who was my age, and whom I would glimpse some evenings dumping the pans of wash water into the long grass outside the scullery. She descended the first two steps of the verandah and, smoothing out her apron, fell still.

The first man to emerge, carrying his hat in his hands, had black hair and a long, horselike jaw, his eyes darkened by heavy brows. He raised his face as he descended and peered around at the estate and the men and women gathered there. Then I saw him stride back to the curious object and walk around it, inspecting the ropes and canvas. Cradling a hand to his eyes, he turned, and for a frightening moment I felt his gaze on me. He was chewing some soft-textured thing, his jaw working a little. He did not look away.

But it was the second man, the sinister man in white, who seized my attention. This was our new master—we all could see it at once. He was tall, impatient, sickly, his legs bending away from each other like calipers. Under his three-cornered white hat a shock of white hair burst forth. I had a sense of pale eyelashes, an uncooked pallor to his skin. A man who has belonged to another learns very early to observe a master's eyes; what I saw in this man's terrified me. He owned me, as he owned all those I lived among, not only our lives but also our deaths, and that pleased him too much. His name was Erasmus Wilde.

I felt a shudder go through Big Kit. I understood. His slick white face gleamed, the clean white folds of his clothes shone impossibly bright, like a duppy, a ghost. I feared he could vanish and reappear at will; I feared he must feed on blood to keep himself warm; I feared he could be anywhere and not visible to us, and so I went about my work in silence. I had already seen many deaths: I knew the nature of evil. It was white like a duppy, it drifted down out of a carriage one morning and into the heat of a frightened plantation with nothing in its eyes.

It was then, I believe now, that Big Kit determined, calmly and with love, to kill herself and me.

 

Love & Longing In Dublin
Sally Rooney’s Normal People, came out to rave reviews and inclusion in the Booker longlist. The novel is a sombre version of When Harry Met Sally, using accepted romcom tropes—a couple having an on-off romance over many years-- but with utter seriousness and a marked lack of flippancy.

Marianne and Connell are first seen as teenagers, studying in the same class in the town of Sligo. They are both academically bright, but also socially awkward misfits—she is more of a loner than he is. Marianne belongs to a rich family, and Connell’s mother cleans her mansion. This social disparity does not get in the way of their love, though Connell is particular about keeping their relationship secret, and ignores her in public. When he does something truly hurtful, Marianne cuts him off totally and they only meet again in college in Dublin; she has transformed into a pretty and popular young woman, sought after by men, while he is unable to adjust to his new life away from home.

The two hook-up, break-up, love and hurt each other very intensely, but there is something tender and heart-breaking about their story—they are made for each other, but the only ones who cannot understand this is the two of them. Happiness and misery go hand-in-hand, and each encounter leaves them emotionally scarred. Rooney’s characters are endearing, even when they exasperatingly insist on complicating their lives.

Normal People captures the spirit of the millennial generation that is trying to redefine love and twisting itself into knots.

Normal People
By Sally Rooney
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 288

 

Excerpt of  Normal People
Lorraine got home that afternoon. Before she’d even put her keys on the table she said: Is that the washing machine? Connell nodded. She crouched down and looked through the round glass window into the drum, where his sheets were tossing around in the froth.

I’m not going to ask, she said.

What?

She started to fill the kettle, while he leaned against the countertop.

Why your bedclothes are in the wash, she said. I’m not asking.

He rolled his eyes just for something to do with his face.

You think the worst of everything, he said.

She laughed, fixing the kettle into its cradle and hitting the switch. Excuse me, she said. I must be the most permissive mother of anyone in your school. As long as you’re using protection, you can do what you want.

He said nothing. The kettle started to warm up and she took a clean mug down from the press.

Well? she said. Is that a yes?

Yes what? Obviously I didn’t have unprotected sex with anyone while you were gone. Jesus.

So go on, what’s her name?

He left the room then but he could hear his mother laughing as he went up the stairs. His life was always giving her amusement.

In school on Monday he had to avoid looking at Marianne or interacting with her in any way. He carried the secret around like something large and hot, like an overfull tray of hot drinks that he had to carry everywhere and never spill. She just acted the same as always, like it never happened, reading her book at the lockers as usual, getting into pointless arguments. At lunchtime on Tuesday, Rob started asking questions about Connell’s mother working in Marianne’s house, and Connell just ate his lunch and tried not to make any facial expressions.

Would you ever go in there yourself ? Rob said. Into the mansion.

Connell jogged his bag of chips in his hand and then peered into it. I’ve been in there a few times, yeah, he said.

What’s it like inside?

He shrugged. I don’t know, he said. Big, obviously. What’s she like in her natural habitat? Rob said.

I don’t know.

I’d say she thinks of you as her butler, does she?

Connell wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. It felt greasy. His chips were too salty and he had a headache. I  doubt it, Connell said.

But your mam is her housemaid, isn’t she?

Well, she’s just a cleaner. She’s only there like twice a week, I don’t think they interact much.

Does Marianne not have a little bell she would ring to get her attention, no? Rob said.

Connell said nothing.

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