The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Firstly, I think the cover and title of The Map Of Love does its content a disservice. From the moody image and brief synopsis, I was expecting a giddy, breathless period love story, a light women's fiction romance. Instead, I was treated to a wide-ranging story that takes in both historical (post-Victorian) and modern-day Egypt, the varying political stances and ideologies of her peoples, and the sheer beauty and majesty of the landscape, while still finding time to delicately portray the deep loves felt by two women separated from each other by one hundred years.
At over five hundred pages, The Map Of Love is a novel to take time over. Soueif's obvious passion for her country is contagious and inspiring and I loved her observed details of people, places, customs and emotions. The two central characters of Lady Anna Winterbourne in the early 1900s and her descendant, Amal, in the late 1990s both effectively manage to speak directly to the reader because we discover Anna's story through her journals as Amal reads them. I liked Amal as she is a bit of a worrier and I could easily identify with her immersion in Anna's diaries and journals. I was experiencing the same immersion into The Map Of Love!
Anna is a daring, headstrong woman by the standards of her time. She is determined to live the life she desires after having ceded the time so far to her previous husband. We learn about the culture and society of Egypt through Anna's experience and also through Amal's reactions to Anna. I enjoyed this dual viewpoint and had no trouble with the switching from one to the other. I did come unstuck with the multitude of men's names listed in passages describing the political meetings attended by Sharif Basha. I think several must have been real people and my Who's Who knowledge of 1900s Egypt is non-existent. It would be interesting to read a nonfiction history of the same period soon and put the two books together in my mind.
The Map Of Love did have a similar effect on my emotions as another recent read, Inheritance Of Loss. Both are concerned with the aftermath of British rule on their countries and I do feel ashamed of the way British people overran such a vast part of the world and how badly the existing peoples were treated. So much of real value was destroyed in the name of Empire and, basically, simply for money.
Another common theme is the potential loneliness of exile and the challenges of living within another culture. Anna is cushioned by love and by wealth in her Egyptian life, but there is still a continuous yearning for at least a small connection to home in her letters. Amal also becomes influenced by this, I think, in her return to her ancestral lands. Having made ourselves currently rootless, albeit in a tiny way by comparison, I have found myself choosing novels that reflect and examine the experience of travelling and being away from home. I would recommend The Map Of Love as both a rich novel of the lure of a different way of life, and of its downsides.
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Books by Ahdaf Soueif / Historical fiction / Books from Egypt
Lotusland by David Joiner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
(I received an advance copy of this book from its publisher via NetGalley in return for an honest review. Lotusland is due to be published in March 2015 and you can pre-order your copy through the link at the end of this post!)
Lotusland is my first NetGalley download and I was delighted to discover a literary novel of travel to exotic climes which perfectly suits my current reading bias.
Set in present-day Vietnam, Lotusland tells the story of Nathan, a struggling American ex-pat writer, who has been living in Saigon for several years. He makes ends meet with various writing assignments and English teaching, but appears to have no real focus and is in a rut. By contrast, the Vietnamese woman he meets, Le, has it all worked out. She is an artist working in a gallery and has confidently applied for a visa to emigrate to America. I enjoyed the different views of emigration and immigration which are presented in Lotusland. Nathan tries to discourage Le's application by explaining the poor quality of life she could end up with as a Vietnamese woman in America. His own life in Vietnam is hardly better, yet he does not or cannot see the similarities. Despite his mastery of the language and however long he lives in the country, Nathan will never be Vietnamese as Le would not be American. Joiner adds a third approach by introducing us to Anthony, another American, but one with a Vietnamese wife and children. At first sight, Anthony is more deeply integrated even than Nathan, but his is a lonely exile as he refuses to learn any of the native language thereby keeping himself aloof from his family and with Western business contacts in lieu of real friends. His business struck me as pure Colonial arrogance, attempting to force Western capitalism and wealthy leisure pursuits onto a area of simple rural agriculture to satisfy his own vision of how Vietnam 'should' be.
I was impressed that I became drawn into these three peoples' lives as I did not find any of them particularly likeable, but I still wanted to find out what happens to them. Nathan's could almost be a coming-of-age story. He is initially pretty much a drifter, easily coerced and led. Le is the most pragmatic of the three, finding her true path when her dream fails. I was pleased that the details of traditional lacquer painting were included. The passage slowed the pace of the story, but it was fascinating to read. Likewise, Joiner's descriptions of Saigon and Hanoi, the train journeys and general life in Vietnam are well observed and created strong mental images for me. His intimate knowledge of the country shines through in his writing.
Each chapter begins with the image of a lotus flower which is a nice touch. I am not sure if it is a Kindle-ism though, but the initial capital letter is then on a line of its own with the remainder of its word on the next line. I had no trouble working out the text but the appearance is odd!
I can't say that Lotusland has inspired me to visit Vietnam in the same way as other novels have drawn me to their countries. However, I think I now have greater understanding and appreciation. The aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Agent Orange use are sensitively handled to induce sympathy, not pity, and I am left with an impression of a strong people in a beautiful country. I will certainly be recommending Lotusland to friends who have previously visited as I think they will appreciate the memories called up by this story.
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Books by David Joiner / Contemporary fiction / Books from America
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
One of my Top Ten Books of 2015
I've had a different Patrick Ness book, More Than This, on my Goodreads To Be Read list for ages, but recently spotted A Monster Calls as part of an Audible two-for-one offer so ended up buying it first. A relatively short audio book at just under four hours, I listened to it in two chunks whilst walking around Mojacar in Spain. Had I known what an amazing listen it was going to be, I think I would have arranged to complete the whole tale in a single walk! I understand that the printed version has some excellent illustrations which are obviously not included in the audio, but, for me, Jason Isaacs' superb narration more than compensated. His voice and style are perfect.
Patrick Ness has an uncannily accurate understanding of the guilt and anguish of slow bereavement. His story is told through the eyes of a teenage boy yet Conor's emotions are universal and not restricted to someone of his age. I found myself identifying with his anger and dread despite having been more than twenty years older when going through a similar experience. Although intended for a younger audience, I think A Monster Calls would be a powerful listen for most adults as well. Conor's grandmother's tight-lipped reactions as she copes with both her grandson and her daughter are heartrending.
The portrayal of the tree is fantastic in all senses of the word and I loved the device of the four stories, both their non-traditional fairytale quality and Conor's contemporary retorts to them. Stories Are Important! I was surprised by how much I was affected by this story. It was a struggle to keep my tears at bay during the final chapters and I have been thinking back over it in the days since finishing. I now have a clearer view of my own experience and, thanks to that fourth story, an appreciation that it's not just me who has felt that way.
A Monster Calls is a brilliant audio book and I believe any others I listen to in 2015 will be have to be incredible to match its intensity.
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Books by Patrick Ness / Audiobooks / Books from America