BOOK REVIEWS

Travellers by Helon Habila

“Are you traveling in Europe?” he asked. I caught the odd phrasing. Of course I was traveling in Europe, but I understood he meant something else; he wanted to know the nature of my relationship to Europe, if I was passing through or if I had a more permanent and legal claim to Europe. A black person’s relationship with Europe would always need qualification—he or she couldn’t simply be native European, there had to be an origin explanation.

Helon Habila’s Travellers is a searing and heart-wrenching novel that recounts the stories of those who are forced to, or choose to, migrate to Europe. Readers learn of how their lives have been disrupted by conflict, war strife, war, persecution, and famine. They embark on dangerous journeys, alone or with their loved ones, only to end up in countries which will deem them criminals, illegal, and aliens.

“As far as they were concerned, all of Africa was one huge Gulag archipelago, and every African poet or writer living outside Africa has to be in exile from dictatorship.”

Travellers can be read a series of interconnected stories. One of the novel’s main characters is nameless Nigerian graduate student who follows Gina, his wife, to Berlin where she has been granted an arts fellowship. Here Gina works on the ‘Travelers’, a series of portraits of “real migrants” whom she pays fifty euros a session. Gina shows little interests in those who sit for her, seeming more focused on displaying the pain etched on their faces (turning down those whose faces seem too “smooth” or untouched by tragedy). In spite of her self-interest and hypocrisy, Habila never condemns her actions. Our nameless protagonist however becomes close to Mark, a film student whose visa has just expired, who goes to protests and believes that “the point of art” is to resist. We then read of a Libyan doctor who is now working as a bouncer in Berlin, a Somalian shopkeeper who alongside his son was detained in a prison reserved for refugees in Bulgaria, a young woman from Lusaka who meets for the first time her brother’s wife, an Italian man who volunteers at a refugee center, and of a Nigerian asylum seeker who is being persecuted by British nativists. Their stories are interconnected, and Habila seamlessly moves switches from character to character. He renders their experiences with clarity and empathy, allowing each voice the chance to tell their story on their own terms. Habila shows the huge impact that their different statuses have (whether they are migrants, immigrants, refugees, or asylum seekers) and of the xenophobia, racism, and violence they face in the West. Habila never shies away from delving into the horrifying realities faced by ‘travellers’. Yet, each story contains a moment of hope, connection, and of humanity.
Habila writes beautifully. From Germany to Italy he breathes life in the places he writes of. Although we view them through the eyes of ‘outsiders’, Habila’s vivid descriptions and striking imagery convey the atmosphere, landscape, and culture of each country.
Habila also uses plenty of adroit literary references, many of which perfectly convey a particular moment or a character’s state of mind.
Travellers is as illuminating as it is devastating. Habila presents his readers with a chorus of voices. In spite of their differences in age and gender, they are all trying to survive. They are faced with hostile environments, labelled as ‘aliens’, dehumanised, detained, and persecuted. They have to adjust to another culture and a new language. Yet, as Habila so lucidly illustrates, they have no other choice.
Haunting, urgent, and ultimately life-affirming, Travellers is a must read, one that gripped from the first page until the very last one.
If you’ve read the news lately you will know that the current pandemic is having devastating consequences for migrants and refugees (here is a article published a few days ago: ‘Taking Hard Line, Greece Turns Back Migrants by Abandoning Them’). I know that we are not all in the position to donate but I would still urge you to learn how to support local charities (here are two UK-based charities: ‘The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants’ and ‘Migrant Help’. A few days ago I listened with disbelief and disgust as a man on the radio said that allowing the children of immigrants and refugees into British school would somehow be detrimental to the education of ‘genuine children’. Maybe that person wouldn’t have said such an ignorant thing if he had read this book.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan

“What we had that day was our story. We didn’t have the other bit, the future, and we had no way of knowing what that would be like. Perhaps it would change our memory of al of this, or perhaps it would draw from it, nobody knew. But I’m sure I felt the story of that hall and how we reached it would never vanish.”

Mayflies is novel about the friendship between two Glaswegian men. The first half of the novel is set in the summer of 1986 when our narrator, James, alongside four of his friends go to Manchester to watch some of their favourite bands. Andrew O’Hagan really brings this era to life, through their slang and the references they use. During the course of this freewheeling weekend they have the time of their lives, going to pubs and clubs, getting up to shenanigans, hanging out withs strangers, all the while animatedly discussing music and politics (Thatcher, the miners’ strike). James, who is the more bookish and reserved of the lot, is particularly close to Tully, who is the undeniable glue that binds their group together and a wonderful friend. While this first half of the novel is all about what if feels to be young, reckless, free, and full of life, O’Hagan’s characters, regardless of their age, are capable serious reflections, such as wondering what sort future awaits them and their country.
This section is so steeped in 1980s culture that I sometimes had a hard time keeping up with their banter (I am not from the UK and I’m a 90s child so I’m sure that readers who are more familiar with this era won’t have such a hard time).

“The past was not only a foreign country, it was a whole other geology.”

The second half brings us forward to 2017 when both James and Tully are in their early 50s. Here the narrative feels far more restrained, reflecting James’ age. He has different preoccupations now, a career, a partner. Yet, he is recognisably still James. Tully too is both changed and unchanged. In spite of the distance between them (James lives in London now) the two have remained close friends. This latter section moves at a far slower pace, which should have been jarring but it wasn’t. If anything it felt very natural. Here we have more measured meditations about life and death, questions about what we owe to the ones we love, and reconciliations with the past.
O’Hagan succeeds in uniting two very different moments/stages of a man’s life. An exhilarating snapshot of being young in the 80s is followed by a slower-paced and more thoughtful narrative centred around people who haven’t been young for quite some time. I have read very few—if any—novels that focus on male friendship. So often we see portrayals that show how intimate and deep female friendships are, which is wonderful but it’s refreshing to read a novel that is very much an ode to the friendship between two men. O’Hagan’s portrayal of the relationship between Tully and James was incredibly moving and nuanced.

“Loyalty came easily to Tully. Love was the politics that kept him going.”

Although I may have missed quite a few cultural references and I definitely didn’t get a lot of the Glaswegian/80s, thanks to the musical education I received from my parents I mostly managed to keep up with this novel’s music front. I really appreciated James’ literary references, which later in life make their way into his conversations with Tully. I also liked the way James would observe the character traits of those around—both as a young man and later in life—as well as his pondering about childhood, adulthood, generational differences, life in general. His thoughtful narration was truly compelling.
Mayflies is an affecting and realistic novel that presents its readers with a vibrant examination of friendship and identity, one that I would thoroughly recommend to others.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Great Godden by Meg Rosoff

“When I think back on that it’s always with a sense of having lost something fragile and fleeting, something I can’t quite name.”

I loved every single page of The Great Godden. This is one of those rare novels that is simultaneously simple and mesmerising: an unmanned narrator recounts the summer in which they fell in love.
Within this slim volume Meg Rosoff conjures up the feelings of summer, with mornings of idleness giving way to nights charged with possibilities.

“The actors assembled, the summer begins.”

During the summer holidays a family is staying in their house by the sea. Here they reconnect with the young couple—soon to be wed—who live close by. Their dynamics change with the arrival of the Godden siblings, the sons of an American actress. The narrator, alongside their gorgeous sister, falls for Kit Godden, who is as beautiful as he is charismatic. Kit’s sullen younger brother, Hugo, is largely ignored by the narrator’s family.
As the young couple’s wedding approaches, allegiances shift, and more than one person will be left heartbroken.

Although at its core this is a love story, one should not approach this novel expecting a romance. The love Rosoff depicts is deeply ambivalent. The narrator, alongside others, is blinded by their feelings.
Rosoff’s writes of a summer that is heady with change, love, and yearning. This is a deeply atmospheric read, one that captivated me from the opening page. The narrator’s voice lured me in, and I found myself absorbed by their observations about the people around them.
I just really loved reading this novel and I already want to re-read.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Bad Love by Maame Blue — book review

Bad Love is a compelling debut novel that is part modern love story, part coming of age. The novel’s narrator and protagonist recounts her first relationship, one that blurred the line between ‘good’ love and ‘bad’ love.
Ekuah, a British-Ghanaian university student in London, meets Dee on a night out with her friends. From this very first encounter, Ekuah feels a pull towards him. Dee is attractive, ambitious, and possesses an air of mystery. While Ekuah is inexperienced in love, she is not wholly naïve. Dee’s casual attitude towards their relationship soon begins to test their bond. They exchange bitter words, give each other the silent treatment, they make up, only to fight and make up again. Dee clearly prioritises his music and career over Ekuah, yet he also seem happy to have Ekuah to himself. After eighteen months together, Dee ghosts Ekuah: he doesn’t reply to her texts or calls, nor does he show himself when Ekuah looks for him at his place.
Ekuah is devastated. After graduating Ekuah meets Jay. The two find themselves growing closer thanks to their community-oriented work, and together they organise poetry events. Ekuah, smarting from Dee’s ‘disappearance’, is the uncertain one in this relationship. Her feelings are further complicated by Dee’s ‘reappearance’ into her life and by her parents’ crumbling relationship.
While Blue brilliantly renders all of the places Ekuah visits (such as Venice and Accra), when writing about London, the setting truly comes alive. Ekuah’s voice will undoubtedly hold her readers’ attention. I deeply emphasised with her, even if she wasn’t necessarily always ‘good’ or ‘kind’, especially where her mother was concerned. Yet, Ekuah’s vulnerabilities are rendered with clarity, and I felt on her behalf. Through Ekuah’s story, Blue presents her readers with a realistic portrait of love, one that definitely doesn’t view love through rose-tinted glasses.
While not much happens in terms of plot, Ekuah’s evolving relationships—with Dee, Jay, her parents—had me captivated. Blue’s scintillating prose, her realistic examination of the many faces of love, her nuanced and realistic characters, make for a truly heart-rendering read.
The ending is perhaps the only aspect of Bad Love that I found slightly unsatisfied. And a teensy part of me wishes that the Mafia had been left out of Ekuah’s lightening trip to Italy.
Still, I thoroughly recommend this read, especially to those who prefer realistic love stories.

My rating: 3 ½ stars of 5 stars

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The Lost Future of Pepperharrow by Natasha Pulley — book review

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow is a somewhat disappointing followup to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street.512LpSa-J5L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg
Having really enjoyed The Watchmaker of Filigree Street I was really looking forward to be reunited with Thaniel and Mori.

Within the first chapters I had a slight sense of deja vu. The main difference between this sequel and its predecessor is the setting: whereas The Watchmaker of Filigree Street took place in London, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow whisks us to an alternate-history Japan. Backdrop aside, these two novels have almost identical storylines. Mori is up to something and he won’t share the details of what he is up to with Thaniel. There is a woman who is ‘ahead of her times’ and she doesn’t trust Mori. Thaniel is confused, we are confused, everyone is pretty much confused. Suprise, suprise, Mori was acting out of love.
The narrative struck me as confusing for the sole purpose of being confusing (in this aspect it frustrated me as much as The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle). Much of what occurs could have been avoided if Thaniel and Mori had an actual conversation but their few interactions were brief and superficial. Pepperharrow was just as unlikable as Grace. Much is made of her (she is different from other women) but to me she was merely aggravating (in her insisting that Mori is evil, in blaming him for everything, in her alliance with an actual murderer).
The story drags on and on, following a growingly desperate Thaniel as he tries to navigate Japanese customs and politics.
While I understand that Pulley wanted to distinguish formal from informal Japanese, part of me found the use of swearwords to be an ill suited stylistic choice.
Most of the female characters are annoying, the men are either hapless or arrogant…and the suspense felt forced.
Although the plotline unfolded in predictable manner there were so many confounding elements that I sort of lost interest in the story. Thaniel and Mori, characters I loved in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, were rather shadows of themselves.
The longer I’m making this review and the more I realise how much I actually did not like this book.
The only aspect I liked was the portrayal of a cultural divide between the united kingdom and Japan (their different traditions, languages, social norms etc.). Other than that…there wasn’t much I liked.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Confession with Blue Horses by Sophie Hardach — book review

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“A year or so after my mother died, I received an unexpected inheritance.”

In Confession with Blue Horses Sophie Hardach captures the fraught atmosphere between East and West Germany.

When Ella, a rather aimless thirty-something year old, comes across some of her mother’s diaries, she’s drawn back to her birth city, Berlin, where, assisted by an intern archivist, she will try to uncover who betrayed her parents all those years ago and the fate of her younger brother, Heiko.
Moving between past and contemporary Berlin, Hardach’s contrasts the stifling climate, as well as fear and suspicion, that pervaded the lives of GDR citizens to the bohemian and artistic Berlin of the 2010s. Yet, as Ella discovers on her trip, few people have forgotten the past.

While the ‘daughter finds papers/diaries from a female relative and decides to uncover secrets from the past’ is a rather tired premise, Hardach focuses on a time that has not received enormous attention in fiction (these type of dual narratives usually take place between now and WWII). Hardach excels in depicting Berlin and its different people, showing us that families, like Ella’s, can have divided allegiances. Rather than completely demonising those who worked for or respected the GDR, she gives these characters a chance to express themselves and their views. Her narrative navigates themes such as guilt and culpability with poignancy.
Given the nature of this story’s subject Hardach touches upon some frankly horrific topics, but she does so with an unsentimental approach.

What perhaps kept me from being fully immersed in this novel was the characterisation of certain characters. While those who have only small appearances struck me as believable, Ella and her family lacked…personality. Her parents and Toby in particular seemed somewhat unfinished portraits. While I understood that someone with PTSD could be a difficult character to render, someone like Toby should have had a lot more development. Ella too was very much reduced to her quest to find the truth about her parents failed escape attempt and of what happened to her little brother. Supposedly she is an artist but she never seems to think of her art or artistic process.

Not only does the storyline switch between Ella’s childhood to her present but there are a few chapters from the third perspective that focus on Aaron. These chapters felt somewhat out of place. Aaron remained a bit of a non-entity, whose only purpose is to assist Ella in her quest.

While I really appreciated the way Hardach’s handles difficult subjects matters, the wit and sorrow of her prose, and the mentions of Christa Wolf, part of me was left wanting more. The storyline treads a familiar and fairly predictable path.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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Chain of Gold by Cassandra Clare — book review

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“We don’t always love people who deserve it.”

To be honest, I thought I was over Cassandra Clare….and it turns out I was very wrong. There is something about the Shadowhunter world that I find interesting. And over the past ten years or so I have grown fond of it and the characters that inhabit it.
Chain of Gold sees Clare at the top of her game. The Infernal Devices series is my favourite by Clare…and Chain of Gold has the same atmosphere. Clare is great at rendering historical settings and I just loved the way she depicts the beginning of the 20th century.
There is angst, quite a few battles, drama, secrets, a few complicated love hexagons, and a lot of longing.

“Would you like to be a muse?”
“No,” said Cordelia. “I would like to be a hero.”

Cordelia Carstairs is perhaps one of my favourite heroines by Clare. Kind, just, not afraid of calling out her loved ones for their rude behaviour. There are so many other characters and relationships that I really loved. I was particularly fond of the bond between Cordelia and Lucie. The somewhat fraught relationship between Cordelia and Alastair was surprisingly poignant. The romantic relationships, often restrained, were engrossing.
The merry thieves (James and his friends) brought to mind Maggie Stiefvater’s the raven boys. James and Grace’s story had quite a few parallels with Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.
This book made me laugh out loud, squee in delight, and stay up all night.
If I had to pick a favourite character it would probably be Alastair who is far from perfect but has a wonderful character arc.

I loved the setting (London), Clare’s writing, the atmosphere, the characters, the action, and the various mysteries that pop up in the narrative. I can’t wait to read the next instalment.

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel — book review

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To simply define Wolf Hall as being a historical narrative seems unfair. The word ‘historical’ conjures a sense of events that happened a long time ago. Wolf Hall, unlike most historical fiction, struck me for the immediacy and urgency of its narrative. While the events Hilary Mantel writes have occurred nearly half a millennium ago, the world she writes of feels far from stale or antiquated. Readers are made to feel as if Mantel had just plucked us from the 21st century and transported us into the political and religious unrest of the Tudor era.

Mantel breathes new life into the drama that unfounded so many centuries ago.
The novel’s present-tense narrative undoubtedly contributed in making me feel as if the events Mantel was writing of were happening right now. The narrative is not an omniscient one, there is no foreshadowing of what is to come. Throughout the course of this novel we are made to feel alongside Thomas Cromwell and his contemporaries that their future is not yet fixed.

The title of this novel conveys the dangerous atmosphere of Henry’s court. Suspicions run high, everyone seems intent on outwitting and outmanoeuvring his or her opponents, there is a great deal of plotting, quite a few betrayals, and a perpetual sense of unease hangs in the air. We read of a divided nation, a divided court, and of the self-division that occurs within every single character. As the characters wage overt and indirect wars for power and position, readers are presented with a panorama of human vices and follies.

Yet, while the world Mantel writes of is certainly a treacherous one, Wolf Hall contains so much beauty. I was moved by the glimpses of genuine love and vulnerability between certain characters. Thomas Cromwell in particular seems to possess plenty of admirable qualities. It is through his eyes that we often see his surroundings and he always seems to pay attention to all the beautiful textures that enrich his world. From the fabrics of people’s clothings to their appearances and expression. His perceptive eye seems often to pick up on other’s true intents and desires. In spite of the tension between the different ‘players’, there are also surprising moments of empathy and understanding.

It is incredibly just how engaging Mantel’s dialogues were. While I sometimes struggled to keep up with what was being said, or left unsaid, I still found myself captivated by the nuances of the characters’ language. While some are observe rules of civility, others let their passion or greed shape what the say. Each sparring of words is fraught with tension. There are so many clever uses of the English language, so many elegantly veiled threats and well-crafted sentiments. Regardless of their role or position, not one character seems to utter a word in vein.

What perhaps took me time to adjust to was the ‘he’ pronoun. The third point of view narrative does not refer to Thomas Cromwell by his name but by ‘he’. When this happened when Cromwell was speaking to other male characters I found it difficult to follow. My non-British education also proved to be a hindrance (it took me quite some time to figure out who was who).

This is a dense novel that demands its readers full attention. There is much to be admired in Wolf Hall. Mantel’s research, her grasp of the English language, her nuanced, and frequently immoral, characters…yet, reading her novel proved to be a laborious experience. There was so much that went over my head, and while I can see that this is due to my lack of knowledge, I also think that some of her stylistic choices (such as the constant use of ‘he’) lessened my enjoyment of her narrative.

Wolf Hall is a well written and exquisitely intelligent novel in which Mantel presents us with a beautifully intricate tapestry of shifting allegiances.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)

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The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley — book review

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“Under the gas lamps, mist pawed at the windows of the closed shops, which became steadily shabbier nearer home. It was such a smooth ruination that he could have been walking forward through time, watching the same buildings age five years with every step, all still as a museum”.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street mostly takes place during the 1880s in London. One of the main characters is twenty-five year old Thaniel Steepleton who works as a telegraph clerk at the Home Office. His mundane and solitary existence is thrown into upheaval after a mysterious pocket watch saves him from a terrorist time bomb. Believing that the maker of his watch is somehow connected to this attack, under false pretences Thaniel moves into the watchmaker’s residence on Filigree Street. The watchmaker, who goes by his surname, Mori, hails from Japan. Mori, who seems to have a polite and quiet disposition, is more than happy to have Thaniel around. Thaniel too finds himself warming up to Mori and his customs. While Thaniel soon realises that his new landlord is indeed hiding things from him, he questions whether his involvement in the terrorist attack.
Alongside Thaniel’s story we also read of Grace Carrow who studies physics at Oxford. Grace wants to pursue her studies and experiments but thanks to her parents she will only be able to do so as a married woman. Given that no one seems interested in marrying such an ‘uncompromising’ and ‘eccentric’ woman, Grace has few options left…
While Thaniel and Grace’s paths do eventually converge, readers might be surprised by the consequences of their acquaintanceship.

Thaiel and Mori were easily my favourite characters. There is a faltering quality to their friendship. In spite of their age, class, and cultural differences they soon became used to one another.
For the most part Grace struck me as the usual protagonist of certain contemporary historical novels, which often star heroines who are unfeminine and uninterested in marrying or adhering to the social norms of their time. Her main characteristic is her ambition, which does make her somewhat admirable. Later on however she makes some increasingly maddening choices that were not clearly explained.

Natasha Pulley does an excellent job in giving her story a Victorian atmosphere. Whether she was writing about London or Japan I found her historicism to be accurate and evocative. Her novel’s storyline could be best described as being part period mystery, part gentle adventure. One of the main ideas the story plays around with is as clever as it is fascinating…so much so that part of me wants to reread this book in order to pick up on what I’d initially glossed over.

The narrative also has a lot of steampunk elements—which range from gaslights to clockwork automatons—as well aspects that struck me as belonging to the magical realism genre.
I particularly appreciated the realistic depiction of being a Japanese expatriate in Victorian London. Mori, alongside other Japanese characters, is routinely exposed to racist behaviour and attitudes. Grace’s story instead emphasises the way in which gender discrimination oppressed, repressed, or constrained women lives.
A portion of the narrative is also dedicated to Japan. Here we read of the divide and conflict between conservatism and Westernisation, which made for some engaging reading material.

The budding friendship between Thaniel and Mori was extremely sweet and filled with a quiet sort of yearning, for above all companionship. Part of me wishes that instead of having sections dedicated to Grace we could have had some more insight into Mori’s character as he was a lot more interesting. Grace’s later behaviour made her particularly unlikable…yet the narrative seems to imply that we should condone her actions.

Grace aside, I really loved this novel. It is a slow-burn mystery and not for those who are looking for anything too ostentatiously fantastic. Pulley’s writing is a pure pleasure to read: from her vivid descriptions to her humour. What began as a seemingly unassuming story soon conveyed brilliant depths.
I thoroughly recommend this one, especially to fans of Victorian settings or steampunk.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.75 stars (rounded up to 4 stars)

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You People by Nikita Lalwani — book review

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“People can see you, but they don’t want to see who you are.”

Given Britain’s political climate (in other words: the madness of Brexit) Nikita Lalwani’s You People is a poignant and incredibly relevant novel. Set in London, Lalwani’s story takes place in 2003 (get ready for some nokia-related nostalgia) and focuses on Nia and Shan, respectively a waitress and a cook, both of whom work at Pizzeria Vesuvio.

Although her father is Bengali nineteen-year old Nia ‘passes’ for white and is often mistaken for Italian. Having been raised by her Welsh mother Nia has never been in contact with her father or his culture. After years of putting up with her mother’s spiralling mental health and alcoholism Nia is eager to leave her hometown. University however doesn’t go as planned and she flees to London.
With a few white lies on her part Nia is hired by Tuli the owner of Pizzeria Vesuvio and soon she is enthralled by him. Yet Tuli—a Tamil who grew up in Singapore—with his philanthropist ways seems too good to be true. How can he afford to help so many other people? Why do people go to him?

“He is a walking set of choices and consequences: love thy neighbour, the greater good, take your pick. This image of him—of them—filters and echoes through her memory, there are a thousand iterations or more. She can never be certain of its imprint or impact. She tells herself the story as it unfolds from this moment. She does it to understand him, and so to believe in his cure.”

Having left his wife and son behind, Shan, a Tamil from Sri Lanka, is wrecked by guilt. His passage to Europe doesn’t go as planned and he falls more and more into debt. While at first, out of naïveté or perhaps desperation, he believes that he can at a later date be joined by his wife and son, once in London, he realises that the agents who organised his ‘trip’ are little more than conmen. London too isn’t the city he’d envisioned and he finds it hard to make enough money to survive each week, let alone pay his debts or the passage of his loved ones. It is Tuli, his new boss, who comes to his aid.

“They all know, everyone knows, that he did it partly for them, partly for himself, there is no way to disentangle the motivation and purify it.”

Unlike Tuli’s other employers Nia has never been subjected to xenophobia or racism. While her life has been less than ideal—punctuated by poverty, emotional neglect and abuse—she has a simplistic view of immigrants and her government, and it in her time at the Pizzeria Vesuvio Tuli challenges her idealistic notions. Nia is shocked to learn of what Shan was subjected to in Sri Lanka and that for him to be an ‘illegal’ immigrant is better than the alternative, which may be death, torture, or imprisonment.

“So, the question would be—is it better to tell all of the truth, one hundred per cent, and get deported, or is it better to tell mostly the truth, with a few untruths, and become legal?”

Yet, in spite of their different backgrounds and circumstances, both Nia and Shan are wracked by guilt. They both left someone behind in order to survive and as the novel progresses their two narratives become entwined with each other.

What stands out in Lalwani’s novel is the ambience and imagery that are the backdrop to Nia, Shan, and Tuli’s lives. Through the scenes that take place at the Pizzeria and the ones that take place on London’s busy roads, Lalwani’s creates a portrait of community life. Her ear for accents and mannerism brings to life many different people and their cultures.
Through a few description Lalwani emphasises the characters’ environments. Occasionally she does so by focusing on a small detail, or by presenting the setting of a scene in an almost cinematic way.

“The glass was spotting with rain again and there was something sublime in how the red and yellow lights outside were permeating each individual bubble of water with colour.”

The unease that pervades Nia and Shan’s narratives builds up in a quiet crescendo. Although ‘not much’ seems to go on, both the characters and the readers are aware of the dangerous and vulnerable position Shan is as he spends most of his waking time unsure whether his loved ones are alive and in fear of being deported.
You People is not an easy read. The violence against and dehumanisation of ‘illegal’ immigrants is horrifying. They do not have the freedom that most people—me included—take for granted. To even speak of or refer to people as ‘illegal’ seems wrong. Yet, sadly that is how they are seen by the government. There is one particularly harrowing scene in which the immigration enforcement turns up and what follows will haunt both the readers and the other characters. The ‘not knowing’ what is going to happen to them is terrifying. That a person can be simply taken away like this is horrifying.

“They have come from the government, the logo is all over them, they think they are invincible, that is how these people see themselves. Someone has told them that they are the good guys, like those superhero films, where the audience is instructed to cheer for each every violence act committed in the name of freedom.”

Both narratives are told from a third point of view but while Nia’s sections are in the past tense, Shan’s are in the present tense. This switch between tenses suited the characters and their storylines. Nia herself says that she is always looking back, whereas Shan is stuck in a fraught present, not knowing his fate or the one of his loved ones.

“Already she was looking back at life and saying to herself, I was young then, as thought that idea of youth was over.”

Rather than using ‘Nia’ or ‘Shan’ the narratives often address them as ‘she’ and ‘he’. This might annoy some readers, and it does take some using to, but once you’ve leaned into the flow of Lalwani’s prose you might appreciate the ambivalent mood that this technique creates.

“There had always been this relationship with fiction, she imagined it could offer her blueprints for living, loving, dying—that it could save her, let her know how things should be.”

I loved the scenes which depicted interactions between the Vesuvio staff. Although Shan is far too preoccupied by his life to socialise with the other Tamil cooks, he finds himself bonding with Ava, who is a waitress at the Pizzeria. Nia, who is seen as a white British girl, feels somewhat left out by her colleagues. It is Tuli who quickly becomes the central figure of her ‘new’ life and seems to take an interest in her.
The character dynamics were as nuanced as the characters themselves. Although the cast of characters is fairly small, and the story is mostly focused on Tuli, Shan (his wife and son) and Nia (her mother and sister), however short their appearances may be Lalwani’s characters struck me as incredibly realistic.
It was interesting to see Tuli from different perspectives. His characters always retains a sense of mystery, and for most of the narrative readers are never sure of who he truly is.

Nia and Shan’s stories are steeped in loneliness. As they try to reconcile themselves with their past decisions and their new circumstances their worldview is irrevocably altered. While this novel certainly doesn’t provide easy solutions or happy endings, what it does offer us and its characters is hope.

Occasionally there were the odd descriptions which were a bit too purple for my taste ( “her whole physicality is streaked with the force of these tight lines of feminine power” / “that solid, satisfying element which ran down her spine like the hard chocolate centre of a Feast ice-cream bar”).
For the most part however I appreciated the aesthetics created by Lalwani’s idiosyncratic way of presenting a scene or articulating a phrase.

You People is a deeply melancholic and heart-rendering novel one that I would describe as being the book equivalent of an independent film. Lalwani’s quiet yet atmospheric style and her character-driven and introspective story won’t appeal to everyone…but I do hope that her novel will strike a chord with those readers who are looking for a poignant and necessary story.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.75 stars (rounded up)

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