Saturday, 25 July 2015

Skin by Ilka Tampke / Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie / The Ministry Of Special Cases by Nathan Englander

SkinSkin by Ilka Tampke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of my WorldReads from Australia

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I received a copy of Skin from its publishers, Hodder and Stoughton, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.

Blog followers will know that we have been immersed in Roman history for the past week as we were pitched up by Hadrian's Wall so this was the perfect time to read Skin by Ilka Tampke. Skin is set some eighty years before the Wall was constructed and the second Roman invasion is about to devastate Celtic communities across what is now Britain. I liked how Tampke kept this imminent threat always simmering malevolently in the background. We know the coming army will succeed eventually. What we don't know is how each individual Celtic tribe will fare.

Our heroine, Ailia, lives a precarious life with one such tribe. An outsider since birth, she has no idea of her ancestry and therefore no 'skin' - no formal identity. This lack prevents her from full tribe participation and means she has no access to education. Her yearning to learn is a poignant theme throughout Skin. Through Ailia's eyes we see aspects of tribe and community life as well as being introduced to imaginings of religious practice.

There are frequent spiritual journeys in Skin and I wasn't convinced by telegraphed plot twists being solved by mystical occurrences. I think a Young or New Adult audience might get more from Skin. It's romantic storyline is sweet and portrayed coyly enough for younger readers. Personally, I would have preferred more history and less magic.


AmericanahAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Dave bought a copy of Americanah new at Waterstones three months ago and I have only just got around to reading it. I have too many books!

I was interested to see, when reading other reviews after having finished Americanah, that a lot of people didn't like the discussions and arguments about race or the imagined blog posts, preferring the Ifemelu-Obinze romance instead. Personally, once Ifemelu had left for America, I wasn't always convinced by the apparent longings to resume their relationship and enjoyed reading the race discussions instead!

Americanah has a large cast of characters, some of which appear and reappear briefly so keeping track of everyone wasn't always easy. I did read the book over just a few days and think that if I had taken much longer, I could have gotten very lost. As a white Brit I did occasionally cringe at spotting things I have done or said being pulled up by Adichie. She has a wonderfully sharp eye and I love her ability to create such realism on the page. There are so many different people speaking here, yet none felt false or overdrawn. Ifemelu herself is a fantastic creation - a proud confident and emotional woman who even without her blog's anonymity seemed able to speak as she saw. I was irritated by the ease in which her blogs took off though. How many of us bloggers have really got 1000 views for a third post without spending a single minute on promotion?!


The Ministry of Special CasesThe Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I picked up The Ministry Of Special Cases in a charity bookshop because I liked the idea of reading a novel set in Argentina. As it turns out, there isn't a strong Argentine flavour to the book, but it is still an interesting read.

We meet Kaddish Poznan, a Jewish man living in Buenos Aires with his wife, Lillian, and their adult son, Pato. The son of a prostitute, Kaddish is effectively excluded from the Jewish community for refusing to 'forget' his mother. He makes his living by discreetly chiselling names off gravestones in the dead of night for other Jews who are more successfully leaving their pasts behind. Englander manages to wring darkly comedic moments from this absurd situation and his novel's first half is considerably lighter than the second half. The main themes of family, ancestry and identity are explored initially through the interactions of an averagely dysfunctional family. Then the son, Pato, is disappeared leaving his parents to cope as best they can, each in their own way, as the world they thought they understood crashes around them.

The portrayal of Lillian's increasingly desperate search for her son and her failure to accept the inevitable truth is particularly poignant and I thought that this was the real strength of the book. Kaddish is a buffoonish character, forever guilty about his inability to provide for and protect his family, and I didn't think he grew much, if at all. His madcap schemes and certain world view were set, as it were, in stone. Cameo characters are well-drawn and add depth to the tale. I liked the bureaucrat lunching in the corridor, Doctor Mazursky, the General's wife and the girl who found the caramels.

The Ministry Of Special Cases is a very Jewish novel. I was reminded of Bernard Malamud's The Assistant amongst others in the expectation of disaster. Its humour is of the wry, self-deprecating kind and I just knew early on that these people weren't going to end up in a happy sunset. Their story kept me reading and interested throughout though and Englander has a great descriptive turn of phrase. His understanding of human nature keeps his characters believable and helps to shed a little light on this shocking time.


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