A brief background: I was writing book reviews for a local paper, but they switched over to only featuring local authors, and by the time I was told this I had already submitted four more reviews. I waited, hoping they would still be able to run them, but as they did not, I thought I would share them here (slightly edited) instead, especially as all four books were absolutely lovely to read.
Gillian Sze’s collection of poetry, Peeling Rambutan*, is both subtle and precise, quiet and sharp. Always something is growing: bougainvilleas, magnolia, a rose, bauhinias. In ‘Meander’ she writes, “I memorize the/hue of flowers”. One of the first poems is ‘Mapping the Garden’ and midway is ‘Mapping the Village’, a poem where “nothing stops/ tree roots.” As Sze travels to China and rediscovers her parents’ memories, the book fills with destinations. One poem begins ‘In Johor’, another ‘In Wen Chong Village’, while two more are titled ‘In Muar’ and ‘In Hong Kong’. Throughout the travel, there are the stories of her childhood and of parents, and poems such as ‘How To Raise Your Child’ indicate just how much has changed.
Ultimately, in Peeling Rambutan, Sze explores the fragile and powerful nature of memory, especially in relationship to immigration. As she writes in ‘Currency’, “[we] try to remember what we brought with us”.
Governor General’s Award winner Kate Pullinger follow up novel Landing Gear* begins with a shocking moment: Yacob is a Pakistani man who escapes from a labour camp in Dubai by hiding in the landing gear falls from the sky and lands, alive and unhurt, on Harriet’s car in London. She takes him home. The novel then moves two years earlier, when a Icelandic volcanic eruption grounded planes and left Harriet’s husband stranded, picking up again in part two after Yacob’s fall.
Pullinger’s writing is evocative and each of the characters feels fully formed and with their own journey, which covers enormous emotional and geographic distance. Landing Gear is about people who, despite often living in the same house, are entirely separate and alone, each looking for the connection the reader finds in Pullinger’s words.
A quiet but poignant debut novel, The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith* tells three stories set in a coastal town in North Carolina at the end of the American Revolution. It begins with John, raising his daughter alone after her mother, Helen, dies in childbirth. The story intertwines John’s narrative with that of Helen’s childhood, as well as her friendship with Moll, a slave that given to her by her father. Smith’s prose is lyrical and poignant as she tackles the contradiction of befriending your slave, the difficulty of watching a child grow into somebody different than you expected, and the constant pull of love and the ocean.
In The Story of Land and Sea each character suffers loss but their distinct reactions and ability to deal with it are what Simpson uses to tell a powerful and eloquent story, rich with emotion and historical detail.
You may have heard of The Bees by Laline Paull*, as “that book written from the perspective of a bee”, and although it can be quickly summarized that way, it hardly provides insight into the emotional depth and intensity of Paull’s ambitious debut novel. Beautifully written, The Bees takes place in a dystopian-like society inside a hive, where only the rules are “Accept. Obey. Serve.” Flora 717 is a sanitation worker, the lowest caste, but something about her is not quite right—she is too large, too ugly, but when the hive is in danger, it is exactly what makes her strange that may allow her to save it.
Although it starts off slowly, Paull’s novel is an absolutely brilliant exploration of important human themes like motherhood, religion, and deciding what is normal, with an unexpected narrator I absolutely fell in love with.
I’m in a bit of a reading slump at the moment, but Peeling Rambutan, Landing Gear, The Story of Land and Sea and The Bees were some of my favourite books in 2014. What were yours?