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Reading to help break down walls
Already this year I’ve noticed a strong theme running through many of the books I’ve read: writers seem increasingly preoccupied with borders and walls, physical ones, as well as figurative. In some ways this is troubling, since writing tends to be a response to the world around us and so these books reflect increasing division between places, communities and ideas.
Yet the importance of writing (and reading) is also the opportunity it provides to gain access to someone else’s world and perhaps to change our perspective. And in this context the theme of my recent reads feels far more positive – each book an opportunity to promote empathy and encourage readers to break down those walls.
Here are just a handful that have lingered on in my mind and whose power goes way beyond the pages - please share.
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At the start of the year I warned you I would wax lyrical about this novel and here I go... one of my favourite authors, McCann's new novel is based on the incredible real-life friendship of two men: Rami Elhanah, an Israeli, and Bassam Aramin, who is Palestinian. These men are united by grief: Rami's thirteen-year-old girl Smadar was killed by a suicide bomber while out shopping with her friends. Bassam's ten-year-old daughter Abir was shot and killed by a member of the border police outside her school. Interweaving their stories and the history of a centuries old Middle-Eastern conflict, this is not a gentle read but it is emotive and persuasive and the friends' message is gut-wrenchingly powerful: only by uniting and sharing can the conflict end.
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Orwellian in tone (dubbed 'a 1984 for our times'), Lanchester's latest novel imagines a dystopian future where Britain, in the wake of climatic and immigration disasters, is now walled off from the world and from 'Others'. In a twist that reminded me of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, the only way to avoid compulsory wall patrol is to be a 'breeder' - to produce children. Centring on Kavanagh, a young conscript and wall guard, the story alludes to the dangers of divisive contemporary politics and is at once very instructive, terrifying and rather amusing!
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This debut novel has stirred dramatic controversy in North America over the past month: the story of a middle-class, Mexican mother and her little boy, forced to flee home after a cartel boss murders their family, who join the migrant trail to the border with the United States. Cummins - and her publisher - has been widely criticised by some communities for appropriating a story that ‘belongs’ to Latin American writers (the quality of the writing has also come under fire), though others argue that surely the point of fiction is to imagine the 'other'. Either way, it is an eye-opening, dramatic story of a journey faced by many across the Mexican/US border and I hope that the debate about the author's right to tell the story doesn't overshadow the fact it has raised awareness about a dangerous, real-life issue.
The Line Becomes a River
Reading American Dirt, I was reminded of an amazing memoir published in 2018 by a former US Border Patrol agent who worked in the desert-dry landscape of the borderlands, witnessing, often apprehending, the countless people who risked their lives to cross it. Cantu himself is descended from Mexican immigrants, giving his perspective a unique and troubled edge, as he tries to reconcile his work and conscience. The writing is captivating (Cantu left the Border Patrol and went on to study creative writing) and the insight he gives is both dismaying and enlightening.
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Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982
Recommended to me by a fellow bookseller, this short but punchy novel explores a more figurative but nonetheless obstructive wall, one between men and women growing up in contemporary South Korea. It was a bestseller in South Korea and is fast becoming an international hit, depicting the life of a young woman at the end of the 20th century, trying to get ahead with her education and career but forced down by institutional and societal oppression. I was surprised how much this simply told but barbed little story and its protagonist stayed with me and am full of admiration for its female author who is so clearly determined to break down barriers.
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The recent Costa prize winner may be an exploration of a historic and already well-documented set of barriers and walls – concentration camps in Nazi Germany – but it is nonetheless a compelling read and a reminder of history’s stark lessons. This is the true story of a Polish resistance fighter, Witold Pilecki, who accepted a mission in 1940 to voluntarily get himself arrested and taken to Auschwitz, where he was to report on Nazi crimes and raise a secret army to stage an uprising. Unsurprisingly, his time in the camp was horrific and yet his work, little-known until today, informed the Allies’ response to the Holocaust. He was executed in 1948 by the Polish government for spying, yet is really a war hero; his story is jaw-dropping.
Prices and availability checked Thursday 20 February 2020