Guest Post : Book Review :Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng

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It seems that Jack has got the blogging bug……..or possibly he is looking for distractions from writing his dissertation. Here is another blog post from him :-

When my mum suggested that I read Everything I Never Told You in order to review it, I was a bit apprehensive. After reading the blurb and the first few chapters, I thought that this was going to be a whodunit-esque murder mystery and therefore I told myself that I would’t enjoy this book. I trudged along though and the more I read , the more I enjoyed the book.

The story focuses on the Lees, an Asian-American family, living in a small town in Ohio during the 1970’s. The family is made up of Marilyn, the mother, who has become the very thing she despises the most; James, the father, whose greatest wish is to just fit in ;Nath, their eldest child, who can’t wait to leave; Hannah, their youngest and the most observant of them all, and Lydia, the favourite child. We join the Lees on the morning of May 3rd 1977, the day that Lydia dies.

Although this book starts with a death, it is primarily about those that were left behind. We see the mystery of Lydia’s death unravel through the eyes of each of the family members and as we do, we learn more about each of them and more about Lydia as well. Having so many narrators can often be confusing, but Ng is able to move the story between each of the characters without interrupting the flow of the story, which, in my opinion, is an impressive feat.

The story also flits effortlessly between time frames. We learn about James’ and Marilyn’s childhoods, how they met and what happened that one summer before Lydia died, the thing that that no one can talk about. We learn about Lydia’s childhood too.

Ng highlights the natural frictions that exist within a family unit. All this tension kept me on the edge of my seat and made me want to find out how the family is going to cope, once all their secrets finally come out.

Ng also deals with what it is like to grow up under the ever constant shadow of parental expectation. She captures beautifully the struggle between making your family proud and being your own person.

Ng also explores  issues of race.  She uses the character of James,  the son of Chinese immigrants,  to investigate  this topic the most. James just wants to fit in and becomes a professor of American History, specifically studying cowboys. He is constantly searching for ways to blend in and disappear from the spotlight that he feels has been on him since he was a child. Marylin, however,  sees him differently. She loves James because of his ‘uniqueness’ not in spite of it. She also sees herself as being different and has
aspirations that extend beyond the kitchen, aspirations that she forces upon Lydia.

Ng tells an exciting story with refreshing characters. It is a thoroughly enjoyable read from an up-and-coming author and I am excited to see what else she has to offer.

Jack Chorley

Book Review: The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi

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There are not many books that make me cry. I am not talking about a stray tear trickling down my cheek at a heartwarming finish……….this book made me sob uncontrollably at the end of it .

The Pearl that Broke Its Shell tells the stories of two Afghan women: Shekiba, who lives at the start of the twentieth century ,and Rahima ,living in Afghanistan now, post invasion and post rebuilding attempts by the West.

Rahima is born into a family already scarred by the country’s recent history. Her father, known as Padar-jan, fought with the mujahideen against the Soviets . He returns home after the Soviet departure no longer a fresh faced teenager but a battle weary 24 year old. His parents hurriedly arrange a marriage for him :

‘At twenty-four years old , he was long overdue and they thought a wife and children would bring him back to normal, but Padar-jan, just like the rest of the country, had forgotten what normal was’

Rahima is one of five sisters in a culture in which only men are valued. We follow her through her girlhood…..she at least is able to gain some education, unlike her sisters. Her father’s ever increasing absences from home with the local warlord mean her mother is unable to get shopping and provisions for the home as only men can leave the house unaccompanied . Rahima is allowed to dress and be treated as a boy ,an old custom known as bacha posh, to help the household run more smoothly.

Shekiba is Rahima’s great-great grandmother. She is born into a more loving family but  her face is badly scarred as a young child rendering her unable to marry in the eyes of the community. Unfortunately Shekiba’s happy early childhood is brought to an abrupt end by the death of her siblings and then parents. Greedy relatives cheat her of her inheritance and she is cast into the world to make her own way.

Through the parallel stories of Rahima and her great-great grandmother we experience the dreadful injustices suffered by women in Afghanistan then and now. Women are sold into marriage, become the property of their husbands ,are routinely subject to violence and have no access to the outside world. Even a visit to a sister living nearby is only possible in the unlikely event of the husband’s agreement. Women are deemed ready for marriage at the age of about thirteen and often find themselves becoming the third or fourth wife of a much older man.

Rahima’s life also shows us the corruption present today in Afghanistan’s political and commercial life, both are effectively controlled by warlords who bend and twist any controls imposed  to suit their own ends.

A powerful warlord is appalled to find that the rules of the new constitution insist on a certain quota of women representatives in the parliament. His aide and advisor explains to him :

‘I understand that sahib, truly. And believe me I don’t like it any more than you do, but these are the rules. I’m simply suggesting we find a way to work around the system so that we don’t lose all control over this area. The elections are coming up soon. We must plan for this’

The solution found is to put the eldest wife up for election. Unable to read or write and in fear of violence at the hands of her husband, she is a mere stooge and is told how she must vote during each session. Dreadful punishment is meted out to any female representatives who show independence or try to speak out.

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell is not a polemic however. It is a beautifully written and imaginative novel. The characters are realistically drawn and the setting is vividly brought to life.

At times alternating the stories was a little frustrating however there is a point to placing these two lives together. Shekiba and Rahima are not just blood relatives, they both live during times of great change in Afghanistan. Shekiba’s life serves to remind us that in the not so distant past, full independence was possible for the women of Afghanistan. We can only hope that the same can be achieved for Rahima.

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell will be published in the UK on 6th May 2014. Many thanks to Harper Collins for the review copy.