Friday, May 17, 2013
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet - Jamie Ford
I've been waiting a long time to read this book. Well, not this book exactly, but rather a well plotted, well written, keeps-you-hooked sort of book; one that never disappoints and remains consistent throughout. After reading many ok-but-a-tad-uninspiring books, this was a real treat.
Shifting between the 1940s and 1986, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet tells of a friendship between a Chinese boy and a Japanese girl as they navigate first love, family pressures and a nation at war. It's a story of prejudice and tradition, jazz and internment. And it's very well crafted.
Narrated by Henry - as a thirteen year old reluctant school boy and as a fifty-seven year old widower - this is a poignant and beautifully told story. The voice of Henry at both ages is consistent and authentic. The transition between time periods is very smooth and you can hear the remnants of the child in the man.
The supporting characters in the book are also beautifully drawn - Sheldon the jazz musician is the sort of friend every displaced teenager should have, and Mrs Beatty, the hardened canteen lady, is also well told. I particularly liked the unfolding of Ethel, Henry's recently deceased wife. For most of the book we know only of her death, but when she does appear as a young girl, it is in a very satisfying way. She fits seamlessly into the story and despite everything, you want to love her as much as Henry does. The only voices that I found slightly unconvincing were Keiko's parents, but Keiko herself is lovely, and the V-day crowd scene is heartbreaking.
This is a book I would love to see made as a movie. There are so many moments that you can visualise in your head - especially all the parts that I did/will cry through! It's a story I would love to see on the big screen and also a story that should be told.
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
We had dinner last week with a friend who had recently arrived in Ghana. It was a chance to show her a small corner of town, but also the opportunity to see Accra through fresh eyes.
It is so hard to remember those days when everything was new, those first impressions; the images that caught your eye, making you turn your head for one more look. Did I really see that? Or the smells that are strange and not always appetising, Or worse, the ones that smell amazing, that call to your empty stomach from across a busy road, but then you see the rusting burner, and the dogs circling beneath and you hesitate because of all those warnings... All the weddings and gatherings that were a rush of colour and noise and new friends.The shouts of greeting and perhaps insult that you heard, or thought you did.
Since then I've been trying to watch, to look more closely. And stopping to look makes you realise what you take for granted, like the Bedouin man standing outside the supermarket - his head wrapped in a turban, his long shirt and pants hanging in soft folds. As the fighting continues in Mali, more and more northerners are finding there way into Ghana; their muted colours in stark contrast to the bold local textiles.
Or the random things that find their way onto people's heads to be carried for sale, or convenience: loads of washing basins or bras, all the makings of a sandwich or a suit. Or those who cater for all needs, like the man with two armloads of pirate dvds and a dvd player on his head.
And there are the men with guns; semi-automatic weapons slung casually over a shoulder so that you nearly collide in the supermarket. Or the guns laid out on the lap of a motorbike passenger, bouncing into the air at every speed bump. Or the men in traffic, and on street corners and in gardens, and tiny convenience stores who move their machetes out of the way to allow you to pass. They move freely and unselfconsciously as if there are no corners of the world where a machete is anything other than a tool of the trade.
And of course there are the goats. It's easy to become blase about goats, but then you realise that there are many countries were you don't see goats on poles, tossed into the back of an SUV, or standing on a street corner, on a leash waiting for the traffic lights to change.
And you smile and remember what it's like to see again.
Friday, May 10, 2013
Tell the Wolves I'm Home - Carol Rifka Brunt
We've come a long way since the 1980s, when television screens, in Australia at least, were filled with images of the Grim Reaper and his AIDs infected bowling ball. It was a graphic campaign. As men, women and children fell, the voice over threatened that more Australians could die from AIDs than during World War II. Prevention was the only cure and fear the primary tactic.
It is this sentiment that underpins Tell The Wolves I'm Home; the story of June, a young girl coming to terms with the death of a beloved uncle from AIDs. Set during the 1980s it tackles issues of homophobia and the uncertainty that surrounded infection and transmission. If this book achieves nothing else, it is to show how far we've come.
On many levels this is a powerful novel. Told from a teenager's perspective we are given the chance to explore motivations and behaviour without the overlay of adult prejudices and fears. The characters are well developed and given very raw emotions that convey the complexities of the issues. I found the book incredibly readable and finished it in a couple of days.
My one big concern with the novel is in the way the narrator and her sister are presented. There is something about the two girls' voices and perhaps even motivations that I didn't find entirely convincing. Maybe it's been too long since I was 14/16 but there was something about the two of them that isn't authentic. The older sister, Greta, in particular, is an odd character. I kept waiting for the big secret to be revealed, that would explain her behaviour, but the explanation is ultimately disappointing. As for June and Toby? I wanted to appreciate the relationship, but the way it's written, it just comes across as weird.
I enjoyed this book when I was reading it, but the further I step back from it, the less convinced I am.
Wednesday, May 8, 2013
In the early hours of Sunday morning, a fire broke out in Kantamanto, Accra's extensive secondhand clothing market. With fire fighters struggling to fight a blaze that tore through the ramshackle and tightly packed structures, the market was destroyed in a matter of hours. The fire was a disaster not only for the thousands of traders whose livelihood was destroyed, but also for those who relied on the markets as a cheap source of clothing and household goods.
Conspiracy theories abound on the cause of the fire. In the very first reports, there was speculation that the fire had been deliberately lit in order to drive the traders off valuable inner city real estate. Coming in the wake of fires in Makola market and in Old Fadama, there are claims that this is yet one more attempt to free up land. Across the city, residential and commercial property is at a premium and existing infrastructure is struggling to keep up: houses in high density suburbs designed for one family may sleep seventy, slums built to accommodate 40,000 now house over twice that number. The suggestion, therefore that an unexplained fire was motivated by a desire for land, quickly gained traction.
While much finger pointing has been in the direction of city officials, it seems that the fear of external influences are also rife. Returning from a visit from South Africa, President Mahama was forced to reassure angry market representatives that the market had not been burned because the Government had sold the site to Chinese investors. It says something about the average Ghanaian's perception of construction and development that when bulldozers were brought in to clear the site, it was immediately assumed that they were there on behalf of Chinese property developers.
It was also interesting to see the level of hostility and suspicion that erupted between traders and government officials, with market stall holders burning tyres to prevent police and officials from cordoning off the market. In response the police allegedly fired bullets and tear gas, including apparently in an attempt to prevent mass looting.
Whilst much is made of Accra's ascension to middle class status, and the rapid development and urbanisation of the city, events like this serve to highlight the cracks that lie just beneath the surface.
Photo credit: freedigitalphotos.net/phanlop88