ManBooker Review #3 : 10 minutes 38 seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak

This is a truly beautiful book.

Obviously visually with it’s stunning cover, shades of blue and gold that complement each other so perfectly.

But the words, the words within are truly, truly beautiful. This is a story told and imagined through the senses. Through taste, touch, smell. Through sound and sight, Istanbul and it’s inhabitants are brought to life.

At the simplest of levels this is the story of Leila, a prostitute found dead in a dumpster in Istanbul, discovered and then robbed by youths high on glue. A story with such an ugly beginning is in fact breathtaking in it’s beauty.

The story of Leila’s life is told as her brain begins to close down, minute by minute, sense by sense.

And Leila’s life is unexpected, intertwined with the people she meets and importantly the friends she makes. Five friends, all with different stories, backgrounds and ethnicity, that come together in the cultural melting pot that is Istanbul.

All five of Tequila Leila’s friends are outcasts in one shape or form.

Nostalgia Nalan, once Osman, a brave transgender woman who ran from her farming family in Anatolia on her wedding night.

Sabotage Sinan, Lelia’s oldest friend, son of a progressive female pharmacist, now trapped in a loveless marriage, forced to hide his friendships.

Jameelah, Somalian born to Muslim father and Christian mother, destroyed by her mother’s death, trafficked to Istanbul and prostitution.

Zaynab122, born in Lebanon into a Sunni family. A family so intermarried that dwarfism is common, hence the 122. Making her way to Istanbul, she finds herself cleaning the brothel where Lelia works.

Hollywood Humerya, cat rescuer and nightclub singer, at home in Istanbul after running from Mesopotamia and an enforced, abusive marriage.

These friendships are the core and the heart of our story. They are the core and the heart of Lelia’s life. Rejected by her own family Lelia’s support and sustenance comes from this diverse group, a complexity which is symbolic and reflective of the city around them.

This is story of true friendship, the friendship that springs from adversity and a meeting of souls, friendships that move beyond accepted definition and become akin to family.

…there were two kinds of families in this world: relatives formed the blood family; and friends, the water family…

…the water family, this was formed much later in life, and was to a large extent of your own making. While it was true that nothing could take the place of a loving, happy blood family, in the absence of one, a good water family could wash away the hurt and pain collected inside like black soot…

Her ‘water family’ are those people that Leila’s can share her truth with, that support her throughout her darkest moments and crucially whom her thoughts turn to in death as her mind slowly, over the course of 10 minutes, 38 seconds, shuts down.

The story of friendship is wrapped in a unique structure. Beginning with a chapter entitled The End we see Lelia’s death. Then follows three parts, The Mind, The Body, The Soul.

This novel is not linear, the story of Lelia’s life twists and turns just like the city that nurtures it. Yet it is the collection and formation of these unique friendships that are the glue that holds it all together.

Istanbul is portrayed as a feast for the senses, the span of the story and the diversity of the characters provides a tangible sense of the political, religious and historical turmoil and tensions which has created and at times almost destroyed this city. A city on a boundary, where East quite literally meets West, with all the complexities that brings.

Here we see the traditional and the modern fighting to co-exist. Sometimes rubbing alongside each other in a disordered and disjointed way. Sometimes one breaking the other beyond repair.

Story after story with in this novel present us with the expectations of family, of parents demanding conformity and tradition and of children torn. Torn between love, loyalty and the need to be true to themselves.

This is a story of what happens when your desires and your experiences don’t fit your preordained path. And how you find a place in the world when your world has rejected you.

And time and again in this generational, cultural, political battle it is women who are the casualties.

Women who are forced into marriages that abusive and filled with constrain . Women who are forced to give up their children, be it at birth or later in the name of family honour. Women who give up their bodies to survive, to serve the needs of men. Women who pay for men’s mistakes when political will changes and religion closes down a household and it’s freedoms.

What better way of commenting on the treatment of women by making a prostitute the focus and the protagonist of this story? By challenging each reader to look beyond a tragic and inauspicious start and to use that great leveller, Death, to revel this women’s history. To share her passions, her past, her tragedies and triumphs. To show us that we need to look beyond the label and the preconceptions, that in built sense of inevitability to discover the real women beneath. To see the brave women escaping one life and trying to make their own realities.

For Death is our storyteller here. It is the one inescapable factor in life and is presented throughout with a gentle but biting humour.

It is the rituals surrounding death that bring Lelia and her ‘water family’ together for one final time. The last section of the book is possibly one of the greatest testaments to friendship I have ever encountered in literature. It challenges the idea that there is one way to deal with a death, bringing together many rituals, creating the idea that departure should be as unique as each life lived.

A book of sincerity and complexity, of beauty, alongside great sorrow, Man Booker Judges if you are listening, this one deserves the Short List.

Rachel x

Man Booker Review #Two : Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson.

If I could write for just 5 minutes like Jeanette Winterson I would die a happy woman.

Over the years I have continually been amazed by her intelligence, insight and biting wit. Since reading Oranges are not the only fruit in my mid teens, a complete revelation to a young some what sheltered girl (!), I have been completely hooked. No two Winterson books are the same, such is her rare versatility and style, both setting her apart from the crowd.

In that respect Frankissstein is no different.

But it all other respects Frankissstein is completely different.

It is unlike anything I have read before.

To the point where I am actually not sure where to even start with this book.

It is such a feat of fact, beautifully woven with fiction, that encompasses so many relevant and current themes. Winterson’s discussion and consideration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) takes the reader both into the past, the present and the future.

Here is a dual narrative so cleverly employed. Finding ourselves in the company of Mary Shelley, creator of Frankenstein, we see Shelley’s influences and hear her stories. As an observer of ongoing discussions between Mary, Percy Shelley and Byron the reader witnesses the new and emerging thinking of great these minds , debating what is the nature of a human. There is a tangible feeling of excitement and hope as they stand on the edge of advancement, but also a fear and apprehension about what the future holds.

We are then thrown into the present with the transgender protagonist, Dr Ry Shelley, and his lover Victor Stein pioneer of AI. Ry has changed his body, making it a place his mind feels at home. This character introduces and embeds the idea that as a race we are constantly redefining our understanding of what makes us who we are. It is a debate that has raged throughout history and is explored throughout the novel, in both narratives.

This is an treaty on, amongst other things, what it means to be human and how this debate should be guiding some of our thinking as we progress ever further in our quest for advancement and knowledge.

Winterson opens the discussion, raising question after question. Are we more than a sum of our parts? What is the essence of ourselves, and does this lie in our minds or is it part of our bodies too? And if our sense of self lies within our mind, then is the way to eternal life to download our minds and live within an alternative body? Or maybe not even a body? And would we be happy with this, or is our body important after all?

Winterson draws no conclusions but skilfully uses a cast of characters, both past and present, to shape both the potential and the pitfalls of Al and all that goes with it.

Stein is the champion of the technology, pushing it’s boundaries, seeing it’s potential. He is focused on it’s possibilities and is willing to accept any disadvantages for the greater good.

Ry is a moderating presence, open to ideas and possibilities but questioning how far we as a race should go.

Ron Lord, millionaire sex bot creator, sees the commercial advantages of AI, extols the virtues of commitment free sex but also asks the layman’s questions, questions that have a crucial validity in their simple insightful nature.

Enter Claire, American and far right religious, trying to make the moral case for AI, sometimes with twisted logic, making what she sees fit into ‘God’s’ plan. Here we see shades of Darwin and the up roar his theories caused, similarly AI takes us further from long held and traditional views, views which have underpinned belief systems and societies.

Winterson has opened the debate on AI, showing us just how far we have come, where we currently are and questioning how far we can and crucially should go. We are challenged to discuss how AI will benefit the human race, but also what it may cost us. We should question who benefits from these potential advances. Is the progress universally enhancing or does it have the potential to compromise or even destroy that which we hold dear?

The dual narrative shows us that as a race we have always been on a continual journey. Questions that we are asking in this era of advanced technology, Brexit and Trump are questions that were debated by the Romantics in the Villa’s of Florence and Geneva and others throughout time. You can’t stop humans discussing, progressing and push boundaries; there is an inevitability here.

Frankissstein is a book that challenges, that encourages questions, discussion and debate. It’s not a cosy, ‘keep it to yourself’ read. It’s one to push the boundaries, be argued over at dinner parties. It is a book bursting to get off the shelves and out into the big wide world.

A book with a voice that needs to be heard.

I, for one, can’t get this book out of my head. It’s ‘food for thought’ is still being digested and I can’t wait to feast again when I see Winterson at the Manchester Literature Festival on 5th October. (Link for tickets right here !)

I am left with a feeling that this is a book with a very important message in our rapidly changing world.

Rachel

Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson is published by Jonathan Cape.