Book Review: Will This House Last Forever? By Xanthi Barker

I read a fair amount of nonfiction, but what I read varies enormously in both style and content. I always find it hard to pin down what draws me to a nonfiction title, but if pressed for an answer I think I would say I need to encounter honesty and truth.

Both of these qualities are found in painful abundance in this beautiful book. Will this house last forever? is a very personal examination of love, family relationships and ultimately grief. It examines the death of Xanthi Barker’s father, the poet Sebastian Barker. And it tries to come to terms with the complexities and intricacies of their love, relationship and the depth and confusing grief Xanthi feels after her Father’s untimely death.

Xanthi was just a baby when her Father left her and her older brother, walking away from his family to concentrate on his writing and another relationship. For all of her life Xanthi seemed to be seeking the father she barely knew. His presence was confined to holidays where the usual rules did not apply and the boundaries between parent and child were sketchy and blurred.

During his sudden but devastating illness Xanthi tried her hardest to understand her Father, his work and motivations; and to cling on to her hope that in some way she could heal their relationship and in the process make herself whole.

This is a book filled with the honesty and inevitable pain of grief and discovery. Of coming to terms with the process of having to let go, when letting go seems impossible. And of making peace with the ghosts of the past even if you don’t really understand who they are and where they have been.

Throughout the prose the rawness of emotion, emotion of all kinds, is constantly apparent. At times the words are like a gentle balm, lulling both reader and writer into acceptance. At times they are like razor blades dragging mercilessly over the surface of old and hidden wounds.

This book is a work of beauty, a brave treaty on personal grief and individual acceptance and understanding. It is a book that will linger long.

Rachel x

Book Review: How the one-armed sister sweeps her house by Cherie Jones

How the one-armed sister sweeps her house is a novel alive with with warnings. From the long established local tale about a disobedient girl that Wilma tells her granddaughter, to the fate of Tone, a young man who has been up against it his who life, the sense of a cautionary tale is never lost.

This is a story whose intensity hits you from the off and is maintained throughout. This is the story of Barbados, or more specifically a town on the beach. A town of stark constraints, where tourists occupy sprawling beach front villas, but where poverty, drug abuse and violence stalk the local community.

Here is the story of three women. Wilma, married young and having endured years of domestic abuse at the hands of her husband. Unable to protect her daughter from her own father, Wilma has raised her granddaughter Lala. With the iron rod and tales of despair Wilma has tried to keep Lala close.

But Lala falls in love. She too marries young and finds herself trapped in the same cycle of abuse that her grandmother and mother have experienced. The story begins with traumatic premature birth of her daughter, born on the night when Adan her husband kills a white man in a robbery gone wrong. Baby’s life is short, but it is the catalyst for a series of events tinged with a desperate inevitably.

Mira is the wife of the man who Adan shot. A local girl who has married in to wealth, who is grieving not just the loss of her husband, but her own longing to be a mother, the loss of her step children and the fact she never got the chance to tell her husband how she felt.

The lives of these three women have their differences but all are intertwined. Each life is a struggle. All have experienced extreme poverty, all know what it is like to want the world to be different, to have the briefest taste of your dreams only to have them snatched away. Each women is fighting daily for her life, in a system, a society that seems riddled with violence and oppression. Each leads a life where domestic violence is the norm rather than the exception and where mothers are teaching their daughters to survive rather than leave.

Each of these women make sacrifices to ensure their own survival. Each is faced with terrible choices, that aren’t really choices at all. The power of this society seems to lie with the men, and women are fighting from the bottom up.

But there is power and hope in these women’s stories. They are smart, they are watchful and they take their chances where they can. As the novel reaches it’s climax there is a sense that better things may be in reach.

This tale is told in words so electric, so vibrant that they sing from the page. The sense of place is tangible from the start. These characters move seamlessly through a world so real you can feel the heat of the sun and the sand between your toes. There is pain and desperation but also humour, humanity, and a real connection with these characters, which leaves you immersed and invested. Each small detail, each back story gives the story motivation and credibility. It is a story whose power gathers momentum with each turn of the page.

How the one-armed sister sweeps her house is published today, 21st January 2021 by Tinder Press. I feel privileged to have a chance to read and review this powerful and beautifully hard hitting novel. Watch this one closely, it is on a path to greatness.

Rachel x

Book Review: Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar

Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar was published by Tinder Press. Thank you to Louise Swannell for my gifted copy. It’s author, Ayad Akhtar, is an American-born playwright, novelist, and screenwriter of Pakistani heritage who received the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The premise of this book was quite simply fascinating. This is the story of a Muslim man, born to first generation Pakistan immigrants in the USA. Both his parents are doctors, although his mother does not practise. He is born and raised in Western Society; his father embraces and adores his new homeland, his mother never feels at home and the author himself always feel as strange disconnect, a feeling of being on the edges of the culture he is surrounded by.

Told through a mix of memoir and fiction, which is deliberately impossible to tease apart, the reader is taken through the complex journey of growing up a Muslim in modern day America. There is a careful and cutting examination of American norms and ideals; the fact that their very society is built upon the drive and need to consume; that human beings are judged by their financial success rather than their moral fibre. Juxtaposing this with the foundations underpinning the Muslim religion and the seeds of discord are sown. There is an immediate and obvious tension around how Muslims, both immigrants and those born in the country, assimilate these differences; is it ever possible to be at home under such circumstances?

Here is a portrait of a community attempting to find their path. There are no common and easy answers. Take for example the author’s father; drifting further and further away from his roots. He becomes a successful cardiologist, in the 1980’s he becomes Trump’s own doctor. He is wholly taken with the man’s success and lifestyle, almost falling into mourning when the relationship abruptly ends. He supports Trump in his bid for the Presidency, wholly believing that none of the xenophobic chatter and proposed measures will apply to him. The reality of Trump’s Presidency is a world apart from his fantasy, and yet another nail in the coffin of his American Dream. This man, who embraces the capitalist culture, is brought twice to the edge of ruin.

Through the journey of the author and those around him the complexities of this picture are laid bare with a starkness that is at times uncomfortable. There is no attempt to shy away from the fact that it was Muslim Terrorists who attacked the Twin Towers; 911 and it’s ramifications are at the very heart of this book. With brutal honesty the author looks at the reactions of American Muslims, the long and complicated history that led up to these attacks and the way life has changed beyond them. At times I drew breath and had to stop reading as I wadded through a complex picture and forced myself out of my Western comfort zone.

The author explores and details the history of conflicts within the Afghanistan and Pakistan. From the horror of Partition, witnessed and never forgotten by his mother, to the 1970’s conflict with Russia; when American troops embroiled in the Cold War trained up these young fighters. The ensuing American retreat, that left a gaping hole of discontent and fury, filled by the regimes we see today. The complex wider picture is presented and picked apart, whilst maintaining an individual focus too.

For here our author give countless examples of what having a brown skin in America today os really like. How people judge; be it at the side of the road when your car has broken down, on the subway or when you are in court.

It’s a long time since I have read any book that has been so unflinchingly honest and direct. If you want a read that will challenge and enlighten then Homeland Elegies will definitely fit the bill.

Rachel x

Book Review : American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

It seems that this book is popping up on many, many ‘One to Watch’ lists this year…and with good reason.

Back in the long hot summer of uninterrupted blogging and reading that was August 2019, I requested a review copy of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins after seeing a growing buzz on Twitter.

The lovely people at Tinder Press were kind enough to grant my wish and the book has winked at me from the shelf for quite a while.

However, just for once I have made a conscious decision to delay my reading. This was based on the fact that everyone I have spoken to who has read this book has been immediately blown away by it. I quickly picked up the vibe that it was a book I would want to review and probably struggle to contain my enthusiasm for. So I have shown uncharacteristic reading restraint and waited.

And I am so glad I did.

There is no doubt in my mind that this book is going to be huge. It is current, original and filled with compassion and grace. Just what the world needs at the beginning of a new decade which it would appear is getting off to a rather shaky start.

American Dirt is the story of Lydia Quixano Perez and her 8 year old son Luca. A middle class woman, running a book shop in Acapulco, Lydia is married to Sebastian, a talented journalist who likes to push the boundaries. Writing about the drug cartels which infiltrating the city means that Sebastian is, at the very least, a person of interest.

The novel opens with Lydia’s normality being ripped apart by unimaginable tragedy. In the blink of an eye she and Luca are fugitives and their own lives in danger. At risk within their own country their only choice is to flee, to run north to the US border, trying to reach el norte.

Taking cold hard cash and little more the clothes they stand up in, Lydia has to take risks she has never imagined she could. Gone is the life of safety harnesses in cars and worrying about school and vitamins; she is now sleeping with a machete strapped to her thigh and asking her 8 yyear old to jump on to moving trains, la bestia.

Written largely in the present but interspersed with flashbacks to Lydia’s previous and comfortable life, we become starkly aware of the contrasts and contradictions of Mexico. The rule of the drug cartels is wide reaching and it is clear that is not only Sebastian’s actions that have put the family in danger.

This is far far more than a fugitive story. Within these pages you will find a tender portrayal of grief and loss. Through the characters of Lydia and Luca we see how quickly a life can be torn apart and the lengths people will go to survive.

Their journey brings them into contact with many other migrants, all with individual tales to tell. All moving forwards motivated by desperation, the desire for a better life but overwhelmingly the very human instinct for survival.

There are no cliches in this book. There is just humanity in all it’s heart breaking forms. Not all migrants are saints, but they are all people and deserve to be treated as such whatever their ‘immigration status.’

This is a book that will terrify and move you in equal parts. There is nothing in this life that we take for granted more than freedom. American Dirt might just make you stop, think and even appreciate the more important things in life.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is published on 21st January 2020 by Tinder press. You can preorder here

Rachel