Although for the most part deftly handled, the complex, flashback-laden structure yields the occasional jolt and sag. The device of harnessing something in the present to evoke a past event is a little overused in the early half of the book, with the result that a few of the transitions feel artificial. In addition, with the exception of intriguing figures such as the sinister married couple mentioned earlier, some of the walk-on characters seem redundant, almost as though they are remnants of threads or scenes cut from earlier drafts. It is at once engrossing and enlightening, a compelling narrative that leads readers through experiences and settings rarely represented in the English-speaking world.
This week saw me heading to Amsterdam. I went there at the invitation of international bestselling Belgian author Annelies Verbeke. As part of this, Verbeke was keen for me to speak about my journey through international literature. It was a great pleasure to be back in Amsterdam. I caught myself half-wondering if I might bump into her in Vondelpark. The visit was also a lovely opportunity to catch up with writer friend Gaston Dorren.
Dorren and I have stayed in touch since we shared a stage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival back in My visit coincided with a special day for him: his latest book, Babel: Around the World in 20 Languages , had just come out in his mother tongue, Dutch. When we met for lunch, he had just picked up his copy from his publisher. As you can see, from the photo, however, he was very self-effacing about this achievement. I was intrigued to hear about her work at VU, which, among other things, has involved gathering volunteer translations of short stories from around the world.
I was also thrilled to discover that Verbeke has been inspired to mount her own international literary quest and has so far read books from 75 countries. We talked enthusiastically about some of the many questions around cultural identity and authenticity that such armchair travels uncover, and I picked her brain for recommendations. The evening event was an extravaganza. Everyone was extremely gracious and welcoming, however, and the staged discussion Verbeke and I had with fellow author and host Abdelkader Benali was fascinating. Over a drink afterwards, I asked Benali more about his work.
Although we English speakers only have access to his first novel, Wedding by the Sea , the Moroccan-Dutch writer is prolific, particularly as a theatre-maker. His explanation of the process he goes through to develop shows and the emotional investment that each of the performances requires was wonderful. A little while ago, I was contacted by Anna, a teacher at Go-English language school in Blagoveshchensk city on the border with China in far east Russia — in fact, she tells me, you can see China just across the Amur river pictured above in one of the photos she sent me.
Anna and her students had been discussing this project and wanted to know about my Russian choices. I sent back a reply and a question — which book would her students choose for me?
After witnessing the murder of her harsh husband by government forces charged with disenfranchising wealthy peasants kulaks , Zuleikha is exiled along with thousands of others to a remote region of Siberia. There, the handful of them who survive the cruel journey must build a society from scratch, questioning and overturning many of the assumptions on which their former lives rested in the process.
After Zuleikha leaves her hometown and embarks on the punishing six-month train ride around rural Russia that will be the death of many of her companions, a softness creeps in as she begins to forge connections with those around her. This in turn shrinks to baldness in the early days at the settlement, where life is reduced to nothing but a series of punishing tasks necessary for survival, before blossoming to readmit wonder and creativity, seen through the eyes of a child and captured in art. Tonal shifts notwithstanding, the ingenuity required to survive remains a constant theme. The supreme example of this involves her portrayal of the breakdown of celebrated medical professor Volf Karlovich, who spends many pages believing that he is insulated from the horrors surrounding him by virtue of the fact that he lives inside an egg, until events force him to break out of his imaginary shell and engage with the real world once more.
The unfolding of this episode is exquisite and credit must go to both the author and translator Lisa C. Hayden for the work they have done to imbue it with such tenderness and power. Indeed, the nature of the story — in which life is stripped back to its essentials and imagined afresh — necessitates a certain amount of simple, technical description. At points, there is a level of detail and lingering on certain incidental bits of information and action that some anglophone readers may find frustrating, given that such passages would usually be paced differently in comparable English-language novels.
There is also a fair amount of recapping, some of which feels redundant. Overall, however, this is a triumph of a book. It is a masterclass in synthesizing historical research with imagination and insight into how people think and feel. Thanks to Anna and the B2 students at Go-English in Blagoveshchensk for bringing it and the other titles above to my attention.
Hayden Oneworld, During the course of our discussion, a number of fascinating books came up. A few days later, I was delighted to find several of them dropping onto my doormat. One in particular caught my eye, however, and within a few pages, I knew it would be my book of the month. Set around a house in a north Indian town, where three generations of one family play out and struggle against the social dynamics that have been handed down to them, the book examines the problematic, multifaceted role of motherhood.
At first glance, the structure of the novel is deceptively simple. Narrator Sunaina recalls her upbringing and the longing she and her brother felt to free their mother, Mai, from the traditional patterns that seemed to smother her. At every stage, however, Shree unfolds multiple layers of action, revealing the rough edges where personal inclination grates against conditioning and societal expectations, forcing the characters to make choices that leave them uneasy.
Although Sunaina and Subodh dream of freeing their mother from oppression, they persist in projecting their own desires onto her and dictating to her in much the same way as they perceive their father to do; however much they fantasise about escaping the stifling atmosphere of home, they find themselves drawn back repeatedly to its embrace. A similar technique is at work on the linguistic level. Although never bald, the language that unfolds the story is disarmingly simple and, for that very reason, profound. Translator Nita Kumar, who has added an illuminating afterword, deserves credit for the way she has been able to convey beauty, humour, hypocrisy and contradiction in words that are as precise as they are spare.
He did not want any females to be seen in the front part of the house. I remember there were berry bushes along the gravel path from the gate to the house. We were always picking on those purple, sometimes raw green, seeds. There would be the sound of the gate opening. In this way, Shree and Kumar convey the doubleness that is at work throughout Mai , complicating and problematising every claim the narrator tries to make.
It is a storytelling that is deeply aware of its own limitations. Through its constant process of correction, qualifying and reformulating, the narrative points the way to the profound love and respect that must ultimately arise from an appreciation of the complexity and unknowability of others. Good writers create urgent dramas that draw readers in. Great writers involve readers in the drama and urgency that underlies everyday experience.
As Professor Francesca Orsini writes in the quote I discovered from her on the back cover when I finished the novel:. Certainly not the reader. A deeply enriching reading experience. One of my earliest memories involves an audiobook. My mother let me take it out and I remember sitting upstairs playing it over and over on a huge metal tape recorder.
Over the years that followed I listened to many story tapes. Even after my eyes learned to read words faster than the snappiest narrator could deliver them, I would still sometimes drift off to sleep to the strains of an old favourite. At one stage in my teens, I could often be found sitting in my bedroom knitting I was an extremely cool kid… while a classic novel played.
So it is with great pleasure that I share the news that my next book, a novel called Crossing Over , will be coming out as an Audible Original title this month. Centred around an encounter between year-old dementia sufferer Edie and Jonah, a traumatised Malawian migrant hiding in her barn, the book explores how, though we may never be able to comprehend other people perfectly, our interactions may lead us to a better understanding of ourselves. This is a subject I first ventured into with the help of my bi-polar heroine, Smudge, in my debut novel, Beside Myself.
British actress Adjoa Andoh has brought to life parts in everything from Shakespeare plays to Doctor Who. Crossing Over is available for preorder. He was referring to the lengthy collection of alternative recommendations I received for many countries during and shortly after my quest to read a book from every country. Although I made one choice for each UN-recognised nation that year, I recorded all the valid suggestions I received on The List so that I — and anyone else who was interested — could refer to them.
At the time, I think I did intend to work my way through them all eventually and I have cherry-picked a number of titles in the six years since the end of the original project.
- Devoured: A Halloween Short Story;
- Modernizing a Slave Economy: The Economic Vision of the Confederate Nation (Civil War America).
- What is a prologue (and epilogue)? Examples and tips.
- Starting a novel? Here are the 10 things to do right away.
- Miami Mayan?
- The Pleasures of Slow Food: Celebrating Authentic Traditions, Flavors, and Recipes;
However, I have also found myself tempted away by numerous other intriguing books many of which have been published since my list was drawn up. One book leads to the next. Small wonder, then, that many of those suggestions I received in are still waiting their turn.
Sometimes, however, a title on The List gets impatient and seems to reach out from my computer screen to grab me and demand my attention. The novel had been a strong contender for my Sri Lankan choice back in There were two sticking points, however. The novel had been written in English and after my enlightening exchange with Indian journalist Suneetha Balakrishnan I was making a concerted effort to read more translated books and it was about cricket, of which, I have to confess, I am not a fan.
But then, earlier this month, I was invited to take part in several events at the Brahmaputra Literary Festival in Assam. Among the sessions on my schedule was a panel discussion with Shehan Karunatilaka. Clearly, it was time I read his book. It is, unashamedly, a book about cricket, but, like the best sports writing, it also explores many other things — fanaticism, history, politics, love and hate.
Recommended French Reading List
Karunatilaka delivers on this promise. The whole thing is achieved with wonderful playfulness. Indeed, it is so enjoyable that it is easy to overlook the virtuosic leaps Karunatilaka makes to propel us between its numerous storylines. It is testament to his ability to draw characters in a line or two that, many times, we find ourselves picking up a thread that was left dangling tens of pages before without hesitation.
Anglophone readers tend to think of humorous books as being towards the lighter end of the spectrum, but Chinaman challenges this assumption.
Make the hardest part of writing easier. Just be careful. A painfully obvious centre for the action might be a sixteen-year-old guy with good looks, a bad-boy past and herculean fighting skill like Cato from District 2. What about a shy twelve-year-old-girl like Rue from District 11? As a televised concept, the Games might seem brutal. The character of Katniss Everdeen, though, strikes the right balance. So for character, jot down your idea in a sentence or two at this planning stage. Uses bow to hunt food for her family. Tough and independent, not manipulative or experienced for the world she finds herself in.
Next up is setting. But are all the districts the same? Why does the rich city get to rule with its rod of iron? How sharp do we want to make the parallels with the world we actually live in?
What is an epilogue?
New York. You still need to figure out your settings. There are a million Londons, after all. Are you writing about the Chelsea of investment bankers? The old East End? The new East End? All these places will also look different to each inhabitant. Perhaps they love their cramped flat. Perhaps they feel trapped amidst the lights. And what particular parts of this city will you make use of?
Try to figure out what gives you a frisson of excitement. Where your world and your character and your story all come together excitingly. The trick here is writing vibrant, alive, mobile and atmospheric descriptions. People have a tendency to think that descriptive writing is of necessity boring — and OK, large slabs of unbroken description probably are.
Done right, though, descriptive text actually adds life to the story — and can be a source of movement, instability and danger. Sounds good, right? More info on how to achieve all that here.
- Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America.
- Navigation menu.
- How to Become SuperStar Every Day!
- How to Write a Novel: Advice For New Writers.
Nearly all novels are triggered by some initiating event. In a regular crime novel, it may be the moment when a body is reported to the police. Often, writers find themselves really obsessing over this moment, because it acts as the entrance to everything else to the entire novel, in effect. Scribble something about that initiating event. One novel of mine had a sequence set in the Welsh hills during the coldest winter on record. In this novel , I knew I had to have a scene where my protagonist, working undercover, would share a prison cell with one of the bad guys she was pursuing.
So write down what you have. Up in the mountains. Car broken down or lured off the road? A murder attempt. Death by hypothermia. Fiona escapes. If you can find two or three moments of this kind, then so much the better. Perhaps your character has her heart broken. Or meets the love of her life. Or has to deal with a parent dying. A sentence or two is all you need. In the same way, you probably know something about your denouement. Write it down in the same way.
Stays alive. Defeats the others. Something, perhaps, to do with the romantic tensions that develop. Simply dropping in the very first foundation stones for your novel will help define the whole of the remaining structure.
The Ways of the World by Robert Goddard
Less tangible, but just as important, you probably know something about the mood of the book. Is it grim? Grim and funny? Is it elegaic, old-fashioned, sad? Or is it cutting edge, urban, cool? Or something else? Some books have touchstones. If you have such a touchstone, note it down. You may quite likely find that you do, in fact, have one as you write. You can write a perfectly good book without it. Some writers get very tied up with the whole somewhat technical business of points of view, and how many protagonists to have, and how to handle time, and much else.