The White Woman on the Green Bicycle- book review

It’s rare to come across novels written about Trinidad so you can imagine how I felt when I randomly picked up The White Woman on the Green Bicycle in the library and realized where it was set. Despite the book’s title, the novel is about a white European couple (the man English, the woman French and the “white woman” in the title) living in Trinidad for decades but still coming to grips with life there.

As you might know, Trinidad (full name: Trinidad and Tobago) is a small island nation in the Caribbean where I happen to be from. Though I lived there until I left to go to university in Canada, it was only in my adult years I learned to really appreciate the country. Reading this book made me go over how I feel about Trinidad and what I miss about it, from the natural beauty to the relaxed pace of life to the mix of people. In case you’re wondering how diverse a country of 1.3 million could be, I’ll say Trinidad has several ethnicities but the largest is 40 percent.

Anyways, the novel focuses on a white European couple which might seem unusual. Whites are a very tiny minority in Trinidad, and this couple aren’t originally from the country, but having lived in Trinidad for 50 years and raised their children wholly in the country, they have more than earned the right to be considered Trinidadians. For George, who came to Trinidad with his wife for a 3-year job posting and then decided to stay, he has no regrets. For Sabine, the “white woman” in the book’s title, things are more complex because she detests the country. At this point, you might think that writing a novel based on the views and experiences of white Europeans makes the book controversial or unrealistic but the author carries it off well. As a Trinidadian who herself was born to parents from Europe who settled in Trinidad, Monique Roffey wrote from personal experience – she has said in an interview that she based the couple in the book on her own parents.

What makes the book so intriguing was how it blended Trinidad’s historical, political and racial issues with the personal lives of the couple, as well as their grown-up children and their maid and her child. As such, it’s not all natural beauty and beaches and country clubs, but also crime, corruption and racial tensions that figure prominently. In the parts of the book. As whites from Europe, the couple face envy and distrust from local Trinidadian whites as well as scorn from Trinidadian blacks. And like almost every other Trinidadian, they encounter crime and poverty, though not themselves personally but of people close to them.

The novel is first told in the present, which is actually 2006 (the book came out in 2009), then goes back to 1956, when the couple came to Trinidad, then moves forward to 1963 and 1970, which were both important years in Trinidad’s history (Trinidad became independent in 1962 ) and for the couple. This is strange to me, but again, the author makes it work. Dr Eric Williams, Trinidad’s first prime minister and a noted historian and author in his own right, plays a big part in the book both as a black leader of a post-colonial Trinidad and as an object of obsession for Sabine.

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle is a provocative and fascinating novel about Trinidad, both past and present, relatively speaking. For a brief moment, reading this allowed me to imagine myself back there.

Ghana Must Go, and Manuscript Found in Accra- book reviews

Despite its title, Ghana Must Go is actually not mainly about Ghana nor is it a book about violence or comedy. Instead, Ghana Must Go tells the story of a Nigerian-Ghanaian-American family that must cope with the sudden death of their patriarch. When a surprising heart attack ends the life of Kweku Sai, a former brilliant surgeon from Ghana, it forces his Nigerian ex-wife and four US-born children to come together to send him off. In doing so, we learn about the sad tragedy that led Sai to leave his career and family in America to go back to Ghana, which results in his ex-wife Fola taking care of four children by herself.

The book got more interesting as the story progressed, but I still found it a little underwhelming. For one, the prose is hard to follow as it is often written in an inconsistent and disjointed manner. Second, I didn’t really care much for any of the characters. The fact that Sai ran away from his family due to a personal humiliation does not make him very sympathetic. Fola is an intelligent and resilient woman but her character isn’t explored enough. All four of Sai and Fola’s children were significantly affected by Sai’s desertion, but in different ways. Two of them suffered a particularly terrible experience that is only made clear towards the end. The tensions and differences in their relationships with each other is actually one of the book’s more interesting aspects. I feel another reason I didn’t enjoy Ghana Must Go as much as I would have expected is that I thought it would be more about Africa, but in reality, the novel is an American story with Africa only playing small parts.

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As Jerusalem finds itself under siege and facing an assault very soon from Crusaders in 1099, its citizens gather around a mysterious Copt to listen to his wise words. This is the premise of Manuscript Found in Accra, a short novel by Paolo Coelho that is basically a self-help book. And though it has the name Accra in its title, this book is also not about Ghana.

The book is written in an unusual way in which the main (and sole) character is a Copt who answers questions in the form of long and unbroken reflective monologues. The Copt’s answers represent philosophical takes on issues such as defeat, love, fear, anxiety, and myriad other common human emotions. It’s not your usual novel but it fits with Coelho’s style of unconventional writing that usually features hopeful and motivational messages about life. It can be considered a self-help book and in this sense, it is quite decent.

 

The Stolen Bicycle- book review

The Stolen Bicycle is a rare Taiwanese novel that has earned international acclaim, having been nominated for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize. Written by one of Taiwan’s best modern novelists, Wu Ming-Yi, The Stolen Bicycle is a fascinating story seemingly centered on bicycles but which winds through Taiwan under Japanese colonization, World War II battles, disappearing fathers, and even butterfly collecting.

To be honest, when I started The Stolen Bicycle, I found the beginning kind of perplexing. The story didn’t draw me in and the details seemed a bit overwhelming, especially the meticulous descriptions of bicycles by the story’s narrator. I stuck with it and gradually, the story began to feel more captivating. The plot became more complex but also more interesting as it covered disparate topics like antiques, butterfly handicrafts, and zookeeping. By the time it reached World War II, the story reached its stride with military invasions and battles.

The novel really brings Taiwan under Japanese colonization to life, including moments of turbulence such as when Taipei was even bombed by American aircraft during World War II. Certain characters are drafted by the Japanese into their army to fight in distant Malaya (Malaysia) and Burma (Myanmar). The military scenes are especially vivid and haunting, especially in portraying the hardship and terror of battle and retreat in remote jungles.

By this point, I didn’t mind all the details and I was actually impressed. The author did a fine job in being accurate with military history while making the characters and events believable, while conveying a strong sense of drama and danger. Just to give you an example, the story makes use of war elephants, which were actually used by both Japanese and Chinese armies in Southeast Asia to transport military goods. After the war, the KMT brought over a few of these elephants to Taiwan, one of whom became a beloved part of the Taipei Zoo and is also a part of the story.

War aside, there are nice descriptions of oldtime Taipei and Taiwanese society, as well as Japanese colonization, which while brutal to Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, is regarded as having been somewhat beneficial. The inclusion of Japanese characters presents a rare Japanese colonial perspective of Taiwan.

Despite the honor of being longlisted, The Stolen Bicycle couldn’t escape political controversy arising from China. The Booker organizers tried to change the author’s nationality from Taiwan to “Taiwan, China” due to Chinese interference but luckily international criticism forced them to backtrack.

The Stolen Bicycle might have been challenging at a few parts, but reading the whole novel was a rewarding experience.

Radiance of Tomorrow- book review

Written by Ishmael Beah, the author of the child soldier memoir A Long Way Gone, Radiance of Tomorrow is a novel about a village in Sierra Leone trying to move on after a terrible civil war. This small West African nation experienced a savage civil war between 1991 and 2002 that resulted in 50,000 killed and perhaps more ghastly, the mass maimings of adults and children. The novel might be about the aftermath of this war and filled with terrible events, but its writing is lyrical and evocative, inspired by the oral storytelling tradition of Beah’s native Sierra Leone.

The village of Imperi comes back to life when years after the war, a trio of elders return and try to resume their life. Soon, other former residents make their way back including the son of one of the elders, who brings his big family. Bockarie becomes a teacher but soon sees a crisis envelop Imperi after rutile (a mineral used in road coatings and pigments for paint and plastics) deposits are found nearby, which lead to a foreign corporation coming in and opening a mine. Pollution, disorder and drunkenness afflict Imperi as the mining company ignores the concerns of the residents and its workers exploit their poverty. Soon, Bockarie is forced to take a job with the mining operation but problems still remain that eventually push him to consider a move to the capital Freetown.

While the events are not exactly uplifting, Radiance of Tomorrow is a pleasure to read. The book’s plot is heavy on reality, specifically the woes of a poor African nation struggling to take advantage of its mineral resources but still dependent on foreign expertise, while still unable to provide for its people. The one constant is the bond between individuals and family members, especially with Bockarie, his friend Benjamin and their families. There is no magic happy ending, but there is a slight sign of hope.

It’s good to see that with Radiance of Tomorrow, Ishmael Beah is not a one-hit wonder.

Lord of Formosa- book review

Lord of Formosa is another book about Taiwan I recently read. The lord is Zheng Chenggong or Koxinga, a Chinese nobleman-warlord who seized Taiwan from the Dutch in the early 17th century. Often overlooked, this was a period of time covering several decades when the VOC (Dutch East India Company, a Dutch trading organization which owned its own navy and conquered places for its country such as Indonesia) ruled southern Taiwan. In China’s Fujian Province, Koxinga was a loyalist to the Ming Dynasty which was in its death throes after being defeated by the Manchus (who would go on to found the Qing Dynasty). As Koxinga was the son of a wealthy noble who had a strong naval fleet that often preyed on Dutch trading ships, it was natural that Koxinga would, after failing to withstand the Manchus, eventually set his sights on Taiwan. The Dutch didn’t give up without a fight despite being heavily outnumbered by over 15 to 1, and it took Koxinga a lot of men, time and subterfuge to eventually defeat them.

Koxinga was actually born and raised in Japan, as his mother was a local lady who met and fell in love with Koxinga’s father. After he turned seven, his father called on him to come to China where Koxinga was trained in military matters and business, specifically in managing his father’s trading affairs and fleet. He would grow up to become a very capable general but troubled by sudden fits of anger and serious illness. Koxinga is still remembered in Southern China and Taiwan, where a university in Tainan, the capital during the Dutch colonial period and Koxinga’s reign, are named after him.

Readers get a good sense of Taiwan as a frontier settlement, as the Dutch only really controlled the south of the island, while trading and trying to control local aboriginal tribes; settlers from China lived in villages clustered around the Dutch forts in Tainan. It is important to note that this is when the ancestors of the majority of non-aboriginal Taiwanese first came to Taiwan to live, most coming across from Fujian.

The book flows very well, and the political and historical details and military battles are described in rich detail. However, the narrative lacks depth at some points, as Taiwanese characters are one-dimensional and hardly feature. The Dutch characters and Koxinga are the main focus, which is not surprising since the author is from Holland.

Lord of Formosa is a historical novel that is entertaining while also highlighting a turbulent and formative period of Taiwan’s past and a fascinating personality.

I reviewed it for the Asian Review of Books, so you can check my full review there as well.

The Lives of Others, and Thrawn-book reviews

I initially thought The Lives of Others would be one of those multi-decade epics. Instead, this hefty Booker Prize shortlisted novel is about a wealthy Calcutta family that is rocked by a tragedy during a Marxist strife in the late 1960s.

Three generations of the Ghoshes live in a multi-level house, built from a fortune amassed from paper-making. From the outside, the family, like its house, seems opulent and secure, their wealth and prestige as lofty as the height of the house. But the family is divided by jealousies, hierarchies, and domestic politics, as well as hidden secrets that include drug addiction, a nasty sex habit, and even childhood incest. The biggest problem is the most disastrous, financial trouble in the form of the family’s paper mills failing. There is also an intriguing subplot with the oldest grandson joining a Marxist Naxalite movement and taking part in armed struggle against the state.

The book starts off slow but gradually gets better, especially as the rebel grandson’s tale unfolds, mainly in the form of journal entries that detail his time in the forest and villages taking on landlords and police. While his rebel experience becomes more precarious, with murders and police chases, his family also becomes more torn as tensions erupt and the financial problem worsens. To make it worse, the family patriarch is battling the effect of a serious stroke, leaving him a shell of the man he was.

The Lives of Others is a decent read once you can make it past the first couple of hundred of pages. Besides the family drama and the Naxalite rebellion, author Neel Mukherjee provides lots of interesting snippets of Bengali culture and society in Calcutta (now called Kolkatta), such as socio-economic and religious differences and the value placed on literature. West Bengal has a strong literary tradition, which still manifests in the present with novelists such as Jhumpa Lahiri (born in the US to Bengali parents) and Amitav Ghosh, my favorite writer, and Mukherjee himself. The famous Indian poet Rabindranth Tagore, who was also a Nobel laureate, was also Bengali.

[Warning: the below review contains some material that may be a bit too nerdy for some readers]

I know the world has become inundated with Star Wars movies in recent years, but the movies actually represent a small portion of the Star Wars world. This world also exists in dozens of novels spanning the movies, the time long before the prequels, and after the end of Return of the Jedi. As a result, there are tons of characters and worlds that aren’t even in the movies. Admiral Thrawn is one of these characters and as a blue-skinned alien from a mysterious world who becomes an Imperial Grand Admiral, perhaps one of the most intriguing. Having been absent from the disastrous Empire defeat in The Return of the Jedi due to being assigned elsewhere, Thrawn attempted to lead the remnants of the Empire against the new government in a trilogy of novels known as the Heir to the Empire.

Thrawn┬áthe novel tells of how he came to the Empire in the first place, presumably before the time depicted in The Empire Strikes Back movie, and started his rise up the ranks after convincing Emperor Palpatine that he had special knowledge of a distant but large alien threat. In the meantime, Thrawn’s tactical genius and gift at reading people sees him trying to take down a smuggler (not Han Solo) who seems to be forming a resistance. As Thrawn’s star rises as an officer, there is a parallel plot with a cunning human who works her way up from an administrative assistant to the governorship of her world through deceitful ways.

It would help to be an ardent Star Wars fan, but even if you don’t know much of Star Wars, you might still enjoy this book.