... something challenging

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A Fool, Free

A journey into the mind of a schizophrenic

A Fool, Free can best be described as a A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time for schizophrenia. It is the extraordinary story (allegedly fiction, but suspiciously similar to the authors own life) of Swedish/Norwegian Eli, a filmmaker and author, as she battles the many personas inhabiting her mind, medication (too much or too little) and nurses and doctors with a varying degree of understanding of how best to treat her. Four male voices, Espen, Emil, Prince Eugen and the rebellious Erik, the instigator of Eli’s most violent outbursts, controls Eli’s life. She wants to go through a sex change but doesn’t know which sex to choose. She oscillates from being forcibly hospitalised and heavily medicated to being a productive and successful filmmaker and author. A hugely enlightening look at a mental illness shrouded in myths and fear and probably as close as you’ll ever get in appreciating what goes on in the mind of a schizophrenic.

A Fool, Free by Beate Grimsrud is published by Head of Zeus, 496 pages.

 

 

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The Sympathizer

Bitingly satirical portrait of post-Vietnam America

Viet Thanh Nguyen doesn’t shy away from the big issues in this Pulitzer Prize winning book about the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Rarely have American double standards, displacement, issues of identity and cultural imperialism made me laugh so much. The Sympathizer (the author’s first!) is not a novel without flaws but Nguyen’s excellent writing, original angle and biting satire make up for the shortcomings.

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The Vegetarian

Weird and wonderful

‘Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her.’ Thus starts the most unusual book I’ve read in a while, and stranger it gets. The Vegetarian by South Korean author Han Kang, is the tragic story of Yeong-hye, told by her husband, the cold Mr Cheong, her brother-in-law, an unsuccessful, manipulative artist and her selfless sister, In-hye.

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Les Blancs

Electrifying play about Africa, racism and white oppression

A gripping, encompassing, little known play ‘about Africa’. Set amongst a violent uprising and liberation of Africans (in fictional Zatembe), still in the throes of casting off the shackles of white rule, Hansberry’s drama wields a extensive cast of characters from each sphere of the debate, confronting self awareness (or indeed lack thereof), culpability, guilt, anger, retribution and the cost of real freedom. Tightly written and constructed, it examines the meaning of sacrifice, guilt, justification and retribution; definitions of race and racism, of well-intentioned but romanticised notions of empowerment and freedom; and the inevitability and immutability of revolt. All of which she manages to weave with consummate skill into a clattering finale – a phenomenal voice that should be heard more often, even today.

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Mend the Living (The Heart)

A question of life and death

I was left speechless by this astounding novel, the story of a young man’s death and the dilemmas around organ donation. It reads like a thriller and had me pinned to the chair. Maylis de Kerangal fast-paced prose is intense and unusual, and, admittedly, took a few pages getting used to, but once you find the rhythm of her writing you’ll be unable to stop. An absolute must-read!

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The Prophets of Eternal Fjord

Compulsively readable novel about arctic hell hole

If you’re at all disgusted by bodily fluids, don’t even think about reading this book. If you’re not, prepare yourself for a firework of a novel by a master storyteller set in a part of the world which I’m willing to bet you’ve never read anything about before. Kim Leine’s novel The Prophets of Eternal Fjord, set in Greenland during Danish colonial rule, won the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2013 and is finally out in English.

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The End of Days

Too sad for words

This beautifully written, prize-winning novel should come with a warning: NOT SUITABLE IF FEELING LOW

It’s the story of a girl born in Austria-Hungary at the start of the 20th century and her five possible alternative lives. It’s structure is reminiscent of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, but, I think, more elegantly executed. The wars, famines and conflicts that dominated Central European history in the early part of the last century shape her different destinies and, as you’ve probably guessed, they are rarely happy ones. Suicides, famine, war – you name it. It’s a seriously depressing book that I found hard to enjoy (I can usually stomach sad books). That doesn’t mean it’s bad, it’s exquisitely written with an interesting premise – how coincidences shape our lives. It won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize earlier this year, a prize I rate highly. Still tempted… just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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Purity

Uneven Franzen

It’s here! Genius declared ‘Great American Novelist’ Jonathan Franzen’s much anticipated new book Purity. In terms of compulsively readable, contemporary fiction with depth and humour, his last book Freedom was up there amongst the very best for me. Perhaps my expectations were too high, perhaps Purity is not as good as his two previous best-sellers The Corrections and Freedom, or perhaps you will disagree with me, but despite moments of brilliance, I found Purity to be an uneven book, oscillating between Franzen-esque genius and rushed, flat, even – dare I say it – boring writing.

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The Days of Abandonment

A 'sudden absence of sense'

How would you react if your partner one day walked out on you? In Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment Olga’s husband Mario announces, out of the blue, while clearing the table that he wants to leave her. Overwhelmed by grief, confusion and anger, Olga descends into madness in this raw, brutally honest story. The Days of Abandonment is explosive stuff – as we have come to expect from Ferrante – and all the better for it.

(This book is not part of the excellent, bestselling Neapolitan Novels series, two of which I have reviewed already (My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name) but it’s just as good.

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Blood River – A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart

Gripping tale about a journalist's trip down the Congo river

Blood River is the extraordinary story of journalist Tim Butcher’s brave journey down the Congo River in the footsteps of legendary H.M. Stanley. It’s the tale of  a country which has regressed, where traces of a civilisation (one built during the brutal Belgian King Leopold’s ‘reign’ of the country): train tracks, decrepit abandoned cities can be found if you scrape the earth. Fear lingers everywhere, to the extent that Congo’s inhabitants rely on the fast growing vegetable cassava as their main food, simply because they might be chased away from their homes any time.  Butcher’s passion for Congo and compassion for the Congolese shines through in his great writing. I read this book many years ago and it has stayed with me ever since and, I fear, is still as relevant today as it was in 2007. Gripping reading!