Summer Reading: Two Baghdads, Two Nathaniels and a Song

The joys of passing through airports with bookshops! Hong Kong airport has pretty much banned bookshops – the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t do freedom of speech – but on the way through Dubai I was able to pick up some new books which, along with some old ones gathering dust in our friend’s flat near Lake Como, brought me a little up to date.

The pick of a good crop was, for me, The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi. This is a story of growing up in the ravaged Iraq between the first and second American Gulf Wars. It is a fictionalised recounting of the author’s own upbringing, and her friendship with Nadia. The book has a magical spell and invention which serve it well; the innocence of childhood is beautifully written in the early pages, and the gradual awareness that comes with the move to adolescence and adulthood sharply depicted. Here’s a passage from the protagonist when she’s about to enter university, which I quote at length because carving it up would butcher it:

Yes, I am afraid, very afraid of the war. Afraid even of its declarations, its songs, its music and its patriotic poems. How could I not be afraid when planes hover in the sky and deal out death in straight lines?

Why did I have to witness all this in a single lifetime? A war in my childhood, sanctions as a teenager, and a new war with advanced smart bombs when I have not yet reached twenty. How can a normal person tell their personal life story when they move from one war to another as they grow up?

Is there anything uglier than war? How ugly is this world that understands itself through war and blockades! What does civilisation mean when we starve children and adults and then launch missiles at them?

What does it mean for humanity to progress when it keeps inventing ever more hideous paths to mutual annihilation?

Warlight is the latest from Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient. I bought Warlight with some misgivings as I gave up on The English Patient less than half-way through: the plot was so thin and the writing so self-conscious that I lost interest. Warlight is a different kettle of fish. Nathaniel grows up in post-war London, abandoned by his parents when he is a young teenager. As he grows up, he is able to recreate his mother’s life (his father’s appearance is little more than a biological necessity) and, towards the end, reconnects and reconciles with her. It is obvious that a lot of background research has gone into the book, but it only rarely distracts from the plot – I found Americanisms such as bookstore for book shop and sweater for jumper, not to mention a drive of “a few hours” from Northumbria to London which, in the early fifties, couldn’t have been accomplished by any land vehicle in less than a very full day – more distracting. What both makes and breaks the book, though, is the language. When the editor allows the author to use his natural style, which is for long sentences, the book flowed, but this was inconstant and staccato bursts such as this not only broke the rhythm but detracted from the whole:

Only in our habits of clothing was there a difference. My journeying from place to place had made me responsible for my neatness. Something like ironing my own clothes gave me a sense of control. Even for working in the fields with Mr. Malakite I washed and ironed what I wore. Whereas my mother would hang a blouse to dry on a nearby bush, then simply put it on…

A new to me but old (2010) book is Elif Sharak’s The Forty Rules of Love. The main character, Ella is a bored housewife who is sent a manuscript to read – which we read, too – and who falls in love with the novelist. This is not so much a novel-within-a-novel as two stories intertwined, one set in fourteenth century Baghdad and the other in modern New England, and both of them love stories even if the loves are of a different quality: Ella’s is more of an escape from, while that of the dervish and Sufi, Shams, in the manuscript, is a journey to: in this case to Rumi, a holy man, with whom he forms a deep spiritual bond. The book cracked along at a reasonable pace and, although I did find myself becoming distracted by minor characters who didn’t seem to add anything much, the ending pulled the threads together very nicely.

Another new-to-me-but-oldie is my friend James Tam’s Man’s Last Song. Set in a future-world Hong Kong, and following a decline and termination of human fertility, Song is the last person ever to have been born. Now entering late middle age, he and half a dozen or so folks are the only ones left on an island that was once home to several million people. More a vignette than a novel, the book is an often hilarious satire, yet retains enough narrative tension to be difficult to put down.

The last of the fiction pile is Natasha Pulley’s first novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Nathaniel (a popular name in fiction this summer, it seems) is a clerk with no future until he discovers a watch, while Grace aspires to be a great scientist in a man’s world. From this unfold two semi-fantastic and intertwined romances, set in nineteenth-century London, with mysterious Japanese men and the making of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado opera. “Your science can save a man’s life, but imagination makes it worth living” says one of those Japanese men, and imagination is the great strength of this novel. It is playful, energetic and, above all, hints at magic without ever straining the credibility. What does, unfortunately, strain the credibility, is an inattention to historical background facts: Thaniel, for example, wakes in a hospital at one point to the smell of “fearsome disinfectant” when any disinfectant, fearsome or not, would not be invented for another seven years, and worries about leaving fingerprints which would not be a tool of forensics for another twenty. These, however, are minor irritations. The book’s a delight. Read it!