‘The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East’ by Sandy Tolan

As the reader delves further into the story, they begin to experience the weariness of the people impacted by the events in the story, whether it be the Palestinian refugees or the Holocaust survivors, a weariness over the atrocities experienced by the Jews in Europe, over the displacement of millions of Palestinian refugees, the weariness over the constant, never-ending cycle of violence has blighted the Levantine, a whirlpool of death and destruction which has submerged the lives of millions, remnants of which occasionally float-up, like the story of Bashir and Dalia depicted in ‘The Lemon Tree’.

Dalia is a Bulgarian Jew whose family flees to Israel after the Second World War and who moves into a beautiful house with a lemon tree. She doesn’t really question why the previous occupiers would choose to leave their home, instead choosing the believe the lies perpetuated by the Israeli government about the Arab owners fleeing their homes in an act of cowardice, until she meets Bashir, the son of the previous occupant. In many ways Bashir and Dalia act as mirror images of each other; both are driven by a humanistic drive for justice, both are unafraid to challenge prevailing notions of right and wrong, both are courageous in the truest sense of the word in their pursuit of the truth. However, they are hopelessly divided by the wall of privilege which exists between them both figuratively and, later, literally. Bashir and his family have had their homes, livelihood, humanity and freedom taken away from them, whereas Daisy occupies the privileged position in Israel of being both a Jew and White. Bashir is trapped in a constant cycle of incarceration and exile, whereas Daisy is free to pursue whichever path she chooses in life.

Yet, despite this, Bashir and Dalia represent hope; a hope that these differences can be overcome by honest dialogue, by compromise and by the three a’s which Dalia references: acknowledgement, apology and amends. Yet all three need to be done in a sincere and meaningful way. Although the lemon tree which once stood in the courtyard of the Khairi family home has long withered, perhaps there is hope that a tree of justice and peace can grow from the pain and suffering experienced by both Jews and Arabs over the last century and peace can be achieved between Israelis and Palestinians.

‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Tales of Terror’ by Robert Louis Stevenson

Nabokov once described ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ as having an almost winey quality to it and I think that sums up the unique atmosphere Stevenson is able to conjure up really well; the book transcends the conventionialties of the Gothic genre which inspired it to become something far grater and grander, as it becomes a kind of treatise on the duality of good and evil in people. Dr Jekyll’s experiments lead to him concocting a drug which creates an inverse of his supposedly benign essence; whereas Hyde is outwardly kind and gregarious, the dwarfish Hyde causes an instant sense of revulsion in those who meets and is cruel and capricious. Yet, as Nabokov states, the characters aren’t as binary as you would think, neither character is wholly good or evil, instead the are entwined with one another, Jekyll being able to let go of the sense of  unfettered freedom which Hyde is able to realise and Hyde is unable to let of the sense of responsibility and respectability which keep his vices in check.

The London in which the book is set comes alive during the night; macabre and ghost-like, its empty streets, shimmering under the pale glow of a diaphanous moonlight act as the centre-stage for Hyde’s monstrosities. That the novel is told mainly from the perspective of the conventional Utterson only adds to the strange beauty which Stevenson is able to interweave in the novel, it is as if the creation of Hyde creates a sense of poetry in Utterson’s prosaic life, the ripples of Dr Jekyll’s experiments impacting on the wider world around him. ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ is one of the greatest Victorian novels, a novel which transcends the conventions of the area and creates something ineffably majestic.

‘One Hundred Shadows’ by Hwang Jungeun

The dark, macabre fairy tale atmosphere which Jungeun creates is often interspersed with an almost bland sense of reality, thereby creating an atmosphere which is both surreal and at the same time strangely relatable; whilst there is no escaping the fact that the novel is set in the real world, the dreamlike prose style and the constant references to the supernatural, including the unexplained and sentient shadows which appear to haunt human beings, is constantly unsettling for the reader.

The novel follows the development of the relationship between Eungyo and Mujae, as they slowly begin to fall in love. This is captured in a series of short, almost parabalesque chapters, where Jungeun is able to interweave the emotional interplay between the two characters against a world of almost uncanny beauty;

“The sky was a subtle blend of blues, yellows and reds, merging hazily with the sea at the horizon. I could see the car park, much further away than I’d thought, and beyond that the mud flats and one remaining salt field. The tide hadn’t yet come in, so the mud flats still stretched or into the distance. The abandoned salt field was red, though  I couldn’t guess the reason. Each island, a sparse dream-like smattering on the vast sea, bore a tall electricity pylon. Like objects seen in a rear-view mirror, the islands and their towers seemed nearer than they were in reality, fading away little by little and leaving me utterly rapt…”

It is difficult to say what ‘One Hundred Shadows’ is about, or if it is about anything really, outside of Jungsun’s desire to tell a story whose atmosphere leaves the reader enraptured, just as her vision of the towers left Eungyo enraptured and just like Eungyo, the reader feels overwhelmed by the strange sense of beauty which Jungsun is able to create.

 

 

‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ by James Baldwin

Baldwin’s powerful account of the repercussions of a false rape allegation on a Black couple eschews the poetry of his earlier novels in favour of a sense of rawness, as the sight, smells and sounds of earl 1970’s New York seep into the consciousness of the reader as they become increasingly drawn into the lives of Fonny and Tish. The racism which Baldwin explores in the book is more focused on how deeply it runs within the veins of American society, which pulsate with the institutionalised prejudices which run through the lifeblood of the American dream. It impacts on the characters in every aspect of their lives, from their social interactions, to their prospects of finding somewhere to live, to the probability of-as with Fonny and another character in the story, his friend Daniel, of being incarcerated under false charges and the psychological impact it has on them.

The narrative frequently switches between past and present as the reader slowly builds a picture of both the story behind the false rape accusation and the relationship between Fonny and Tish. This reader therefore slowly becomes increasingly invested in not just the couple, but their wider families, whether it be Fonny’s acerbic and repressive one or Tish’s warmer family. This emotional investment pays off, as we slowly build and fit together the jigsaw pieces behind both their love and the vindictive police officer who seeks to tear their lives apart.

‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ is rendered extraordinary in the very sense of ordinariness it is portraying; there is nothing ostensibly special about any of the characters, there are just people trying to navigate life and its many barriers, but it is the fact that so many of these barriers exist purely because of the colour of their skin that underpins the the undercurrent of tragedy which runs through the novel.

‘The Street of Butterflies’ by Mehri Yalfani

This collection of short stories is both simultaneously light and heavy; Yalfani’s prose style is light, almost ethereal, as she explores the lives of various Iranian characters both in Iran and aboard, however the themes which emerge, whether it be the mute loneliness of Soleiman in ‘Soleiman’s Silence’ or the romantic bitterness of ‘A Suitable Choice’, speak to a sense of lassitude and disappointment which has taken over the characters lives.  Sometimes this disappointment can be the result of cronyism, as in ‘American Chocolate’, where a schoolgirl’s dreams of a place at university in Beirut are dashed when it is offered to a girl from a richer family or sometimes this disappointment can be rooted in a sense of loss, as with the writer in ‘Heart’s Language’, who in forgoing her native Farsi when writing in English loses the soul of her writing. Yet the common them running through all of these stories if one of loss of identity, as the character often feel rootless and helpless against the change which is engulfing their lives.

That is not to say that Yalfani’s stories are somehow gloomy or cynical; for example,  the beautiful ending of ‘The Street of Butterflies’, in which a woman requests her house, which is surrounded by nondescript tower blocks, is converted into a nursery after her death, is touching without being sentimental and there is a lot of humour interspersed in the stories. Rather, Yalfani explores her stories from characters who didn’t fit in, who break against the tradition and who are trying to adapt to a world which often doesn’t understand them.

‘Love and Longing in Bombay’ by Vikram Chandra

Chandra’s Bombay is one of slick-haired gangsters, of lachrymose loners, of petty crimes and love and lust, a city teeming with life and all the possibilities in brings. The stories depicted in this novel range from the depiction of a mysterious murder case which is being investigated by the dogged Sartaj, to the love story between two people who are brought together during a woman’s hopeless search for her pilot husband who was lost during the war.

Chandra skilfully interweaves these stories within the tapestry of Bombay, its veins throbbing with lives of millions of people. In ‘Artha’ a gangster quips to the protagonist that he is so faceless that he could quite easily pass as an assassin, given that he looks like everybody and, at the same time, nobody at all. Yet Chandra’s choice of characters counteracts this point, as his narrators exist outside of the confines of normal society; this can be due to their religion, as with the Sikh Sartaj or the Muslim Iqbal, or due to their personal idiosyncracies, as with the shy and strange Shiv or the austere Jago Anatia.

Yet, there is a deeply humanistic streak in Chandra’s stories, as each of the characters is attempting to orientate themselves in a world which has no easy answers, whether it be to the sense of ennui which overtakes Sartaj or the tragedy of a siblings childhood death which overcomes Jago Anatia; the characters depicted in Love and Longing in Bombay are rendered more alive by the flaws which define them.

‘The Mill on the Floss’ by George Eliot

Eliot begins ‘The Mill on the Floss’ elegiacally, with a depiction of the almost baleful beauty of Dorlcote Mill;  effervescent beneath the winter sun, as the gentle undulations of the stream echo across the fields which surround it. Yet, for all its beauty, the Mill is the setting for the tragic events which take place during the novel. The first quarter of the novel, which depicts the the childhood of Maggie and Tom Tulliver, is perhaps the weakest, as it lacks the conflict between the two siblings which acts as the bedrock of the story.

Indeed, the relationship between the two-the headstrong, intelligent and imaginative Maggie and the serious, studious and hopelessly dull Tom, explores the role of men and women in Victorian society. Tom’s mediocrity is propped up by his gender, whereas Maggie’s brilliance is weighed down by hers and one gets the sense that Elliot was leagues ahead of her contemporaries in depicting fully realised and sympathetic characters. From the proud Mr Tulliver, to the sensitive hunchback Phillip, whose outlook on humanity has been shaped by his deformity, to the jocose Stephen, whose selfishness sets into motion the events which take over the lives of the characters, each character is depicted with empathy, flaws and all. Elliot’s is (unlike in some of her other novels) able to moralise without being sententious, imploring the reader to sympathise with, rather than judge, the characters. In many ways, each character is imprisoned by their own imperfection, whether it be Tom in his bourgeoisie outlook on life or Stephen in his recklessness.

Whilst ‘The Mill on the Floss’  perhaps doesn’t reach the heights of Middlemarch, it is nevertheless a brilliant depiction of the life of a family in mid-Victorian England and the tragic sequence of events which overtakes their lives.

‘The President’ by Miguel Angel Asturias

‘The President’ is the depiction of life under the rule of a cruel and capricious dictator in a nameless South American country. There is an almost acrid atmosphere to the book, as Asturias lures you in with the lurid lives of the characters, from the Machiavellian, but ultimately tragic Angel Face, to the innocent Camilla who is caught up his web of deceit, to the dictator himself, a man consumed with paranoia and hatred.

The nightmarish tone of the novel is set in the opening chapter, which depicts a scene in which various tramps congregate in a church, one of whom ends up murdering a general and, thus setting in motion the events which take place during the book. This nightmarish atmosphere is reinforced throughout the book; from frequent description to the orangeade sky, to the constant stream of betrayals which the characters subject each other too, the people who populate the story are not so much humans as they are puppets dancing on the strings of the all-powerful dictator.

Not only is ‘The President’ a powerful and prescient depiction of life under a dictator, it is also an exploration of the ceaseless cruelty created by any tyrannically government and  the meaningless sense of violence it perpetuates.

‘Figuring’ by Maria Popova

Popov’s elegiacal account of the lives of a number of inspirational artists and scientists  acts as a paean to creativity and individuality and, most importantly, the truth. The crux of the book deals with three women-Maria Mitchell, Harriet Hosmer and Margaret Fuller -whose lives intersect not only with one another, but also with the majority of the people who appear in the book, from Emerson to Walt Whitman, from Emily Dickinson to Elizabeth Browning, these unconventional and brilliant women act as the bright stars which illuminate 19th century America.

Popova’s profound musings on the painful and lonely nature of genius, on the unbearable lightness of the beauty which the people depicted are able to discover in their respective fields, on the impermanence of life against ceaseless march of time and most importantly on the fearlessness demonstrated by the characters in their pursuit of truth and beauty and how each of them was able to change the world, elevates the book to not just being a paean to creativity, but to life itself.

 

 

‘The First Well: A Bethlehem Boyhood’ by Jabra Ibrahim Jabra

Jabra’s account of his boyhood in Bethlehem is shorn of all sentimentality and instead imbued with an authenticity which allows the reader to become fully immersed in Jabra’s poverty stricken, yet essentially happy, childhood. Fro Jabra’s childhood escapades, to his stoical father and kindly grandmother, or his impetuous brother and the litany of characters who Jabra interacts with in Bethlehem, the reader is transported to a world of desperate poverty from which Jabra years to escape and yet is inexplicably drawn, Bethlehem becomes a place which seems discarded by a world whose history it helped set in motion. In many ways Jabra’s childhood acts as a microcosm of a Palestine which is on the brink of catalysis change,  a Palestine which is poised to enter modernity and become the centre of a conflict which divides the world.

Jabra’s prose and narrative style are both simple and straightforward and one wonders whether something has been lost in translation of the musical beauty of Arabic which Jabra so often eulogies during the novel. However, the novel works better for this, as it reflects the simplicity of the world which Jabra recreates as Jabra is more interested in the everyday, in the quotidian details of peoples lives, of the joys and pitfalls of childhood, of the struggles and triumphs of those around him and, in many ways, recapturing the lives of people in this way is the most complex way to tell a story as it is reliant wholly on the writer’s ability to recreate the past.

‘The First Well’ is essential reading for people who would like to learn more about life in Palestine just before it is overtaken by the Second World War and everything which came afterwards.