Feb 20, 2021
Belonging and exile are at the heart of this novel of dislocation and trauma
Early in Hafsa Zayyan’s debut, 26-year-old City lawyer Sameer sits sobbing at the door of his smart London flat. He has been walking in Leicester Square, weaving absently between street performers and tourists, when he realises his pockets have been emptied – his phone, wallet and keys are gone. First comes panic, then a bitter sense of betrayal. How could a city he knows so well suddenly turn on him, he thinks, as though he were a hapless visitor? It’s a minor moment in a sea of troubles, but one that becomes freighted with meaning in this multigenerational novel about belonging and exile. It becomes clear, too, that Sameer’s growing disenchantment is symptomatic of deeper feelings of dislocation.
In We Are All Birds of Uganda Zayyan tells two stories across different timeframes, moving between Sameer in contemporary London and his grandfather Hasan in 1970s Kampala. While Sameer wrestles with his demanding job and contemplates a move to Singapore that will devastate his Muslim parents, Hasan grieves for his dead wife and struggles with his business as Idi Amin seizes power in Uganda. For both of them, the future feels uncertain, and Zayyan uses their dual narratives to expose the fragility of different forms of belonging, national and familial. Citizenship is an unstable experience for Hasan. He knows it can be rescinded. But Sameer too is troubled by the problem of how to belong to a culture that might reject you. When a colleague excludes him from a party since “you lot don’t drink”, Sameer becomes painfully aware of differences unnoticed before. Continue reading...
Sep 25, 2020
When does self-determination become selfishness? This intelligent Booker-shortlisted debut examines the legacy of a toxic mother
In the 1970s the British paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott described a kind of parenting that need not be all-consuming and self-sacrificing, but which could instead be simply “good enough”. Rather than rushing to feed the child immediately, the “good enough” mother allows an infant to cry a little, teaching them about the reality of frustration and expectation. But what can you learn from a bad mother?
In Avni Doshi’s Booker-shortlisted novel, Tara chooses to pursue her own desires, even as they come at an appalling cost. A restless and discontented young woman in 1980s India, she becomes so enthralled by a guru at a local ashram that she neglects her baby and abandons her marriage. She is absent and unrepentant, thoughtless of her daughter Antara, who later dispassionately describes how she “would disappear every day, dripping with milk, leaving me unfed”. Continue reading...
Jun 12, 2020
From romance to debt, the struggles of an aspiring writer are observed with humour and pathos
In John Singer Sargent’s 19th-century portrait The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, three young girls in neat period dresses gaze blankly at the viewer, while a fourth turns away towards shadow, almost truculently reserved. There’s a truculent reserve to 31-year-old Casey Kasem, the down-at-heel narrator of Lily King’s new book. Casey is an aspiring writer and has been labouring over a novel for six years. She works at a restaurant and lives in a potting shed, grieving the death of her mother. She’s lonely. But gazing at Sargent’s portrait, she longs to “write something as good as right there, right where that belt cinches her pinafore”. She sees what she could strive for and how hard it will be to accomplish. “There’s a madness to beauty when you stumble on it like that,” she thinks.
Casey encounters the painting at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, while on an uncertain date with an uncertain love interest. Pretty much everything is uncertain in Casey’s life. Her housing situation is precarious and her waitressing job is insecure. She is burdened by debts so heavy that at times she can barely breathe, and her sketchy health insurance is about to be rescinded precisely at the moment she needs it. The one thing Casey knows with a piercing clarity is that she needs to write. Continue reading...