A Good Land
Nada Awar Jarrar
We imagine refugees arriving in tatters, reeking of war, but some confound expectation. They appear neatly dressed, with reserves of money, fully equipped to begin life anew. The lacerations and the stink are there, but internalised; these can be the hardest victims to understand, or to fictionalise. Nada Awar Jarrar succeeds because she knows whereof she speaks: like Layla, the fragile main character of this, her third novel, Jarrar left Lebanon with her parents during the civil war and has returned to live there as an adult. But Layla is not a writer – she’s a teacher, albeit one who feels she has a lot to learn.
In the flat above Layla’s lives Margo, an elderly woman with a murky past and lots of hard-won wisdom. Like Beirut, she has survived war and divided loyalties; but unlike the city she has no fundamental ties to this troubled part of the world; she has just chosen to die there. Layla’s attempts to understand Margo are a form of historical research, one that the reader, too, must engage in.
The upshot is a careful layering of information about Lebanon past and present, the French Resistance and even the Palestinian diaspora (Layla’s lover, Kamal, is Palestinian, but Beirut-born, so for him, as for Layla, the issue of home is impossible to resolve simply). It’s an intense encounter with a mysterious and complicated place. Jarrar’s movement between tenses and time zones (some of the novel is told by Layla, other parts jump back in time yet use the present continuous tense) serves to convince the reader that past and present cannot be separated, even if they can – like Margo’s memories, or Beirut’s religious communities – be shut off from one another by an act of will.
HarperCollins Dhs72 Available at Magrudy’s
It is the great irony of David Peace’s career thus far that his most acclaimed book is also his least representative, in content if not in execution. The Damned United, a crime-free character study, was an instant classic, whereas his cops-and-killers novels are not always as comfortable in their marriage of style and substance. But Occupied City could change that.
The second book in Peace’s Tokyo trilogy, set in the beleaguered and chaotic Japanese capital in the aftermath of World War II, Occupied City is typical Peace in its unorthodox treatment of a horrible real-life crime. In 1948, a man walked into a bank and claimed he was a public health official who would innoculate staff after a dysentery outbreak; the liquid he administered instead killed 12 people and the murderer walked off with 160,000 Yen. The ensuing investigation takes in US complicity in covering up the Japanese army’s clandestine experiments in biological warfare. With his usual impressionistic invention, Peace tells the story Rashomon-style, from 12 view points, each of which assumes its own distinctive tone – from the relatively straightforward testimony of the man who was eventually convicted of the murders, to the triple-decker stream-of-consciousness of one of the police detectives involved in the case. Like most Peace books, this is a page turner, but also, less usually, one with something close to a moral centre: Peace believes an official cover-up led to a miscarriage of justice, and does not shy away from telling the story that way.
Faber and Faber Dhs85 Available to order from Magrudy’s
Sushi And Beyond: What The Japanese Know About Cooking
When journalist and food writer Michael Booth decides his Cordon Bleu course in Paris (the subject of his last book) isn’t enough culinary knowledge, he starts planning a three-month trip around Japan. Along the way he recounts the history of Japanese food as well as unearthing local treats he thinks should make it big in the West. Of course, this stuff has been written about before, but Booth brings extra ingredients: an accomplished cook’s know-how, a cultural observer’s objectivity and a gift for embarrassing himself. He also takes his wife Lissen and young sons with him, and their reactions to the Tokyo fish market, eating a whole fish eye, spitting out scallop snacks and other exotica form an important part of the story. Happily, though, there’s no trace of the ‘how crazy is that?’ style of writing that sometimes typifies an outsider’s view of Japan.
Booth’s style, in fact, is hugely enjoyable, whether he’s assessing the real value of MSG, exploring why Okinawans live so long, or guzzling two lunches in the name of research while escaping the attentions of an amorous Kyoto local. He explains why Kobe is a misnomer for tender, fatty, expensive Japanese beef and finds out if the cows are really massaged and fed beer (they are). In addition, this is an entertaining guide to the food you should try on a trip to the area and the food – potentially lethal fugu fish or noodles scooped from a stream, both of which Booth intrepidly tastes – you definitely shouldn’t.
Jonathan Cape Dhs85 Available at Magrudy’s
Between The Assassinations
Set between the assassinations of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi in the ’80s, this collection of short stories presents a complex portrait of Kittur, a small city on India’s south coast. The fictional interludes are interspersed with descriptions of the city and its historical sights, and the intentionally bland travel guide style of the latter contrasts with the intrigue and corruption of the narratives, in which unsavoury local characters range from a gangster who exploits street urchins for money to a wealthy businessman who causes a fatal car crash then coerces one of his employees into claiming to have been the driver – a plot device Adiga also used in his Man Booker-winning debut novel The White Tiger. The author clearly has a pretty jaundiced view of low-level politics in his native land, unlike the idealistic journalist in this story, who fails to understand that the police, the judges and even his own paper are complicit in covering up such crimes.
Although only a few characters cross over into stories other than their own, Adiga has a clear overall strategy: he is trying to highlight the injustice meted out to people who are often little more than pawns in a political game played by corrupt rulers. Once again, the caste system comes under attack, its unfairness enforcing rigid boundaries that are crossed at characters’ peril. A young schoolboy, whose parents come from different castes, is treated like an outsider by everyone. A servant is led to believe that his employer has granted him higher status in her household, only to be summarily dismissed when he questions her order to clean the guttering.
The stories, which mostly predate his novel, are connected only by theme and geographical proximity, which may be why they lack the driving force of that blistering debut. Still, while some tales lack the satirical bite of Adiga’s best writing, Between The Assassinations offers a compelling insight into India’s lopsided social structures.
Ian Haydn Smith
Atlantic Books Dhs72 Available at Magrudy’s