Book Review

BOOK REVIEW: Apeirogon by Colum McCann

Review by Tina Isaacs

[Honest review in exchange for a review copy by Times Reads]

Apeirogon presents the intertwining real life stories of bereaved Palestinian and Israeli fathers Bassam Aramin and Rami El Anam – the unexpected and profound bond arising between them over a shared loss of their daughters: Bassam’s ten-year-old Abir was shot dead by a rubber bullet from the Israeli border police after a trip to the store to buy candy (“This,” Bassam says wryly, “is the World’s most expensive candy”); and Rami’s daughter, Smadar, was thirteen when she was killed in a suicide bomb attack – and the convergence of a multitude of personal accounts, anecdotes and trivia in 1,001 mini-chapters, a nod to The Arabian Nights: One Thousand and One Nights, the latter which Irish-American author Colum McCann aptly describes as “a ruse for life in the face of death.”

Apeirogon: a shape with a countably infinite number of sides. From the Greek, apeiron: to be boundless, to be endless. Alongside the Indo-European root of per: to try, to risk.

This 2020 novel is part non-fictional examination of Israeli-Palestinian history and politics, part curation of anecdotes of seemingly unrelated happenings, and part author’s exercise of creative license and conjecture into the motivations of those involved. The relevance of a vignette of the past introduced at an early chapter may take some time to fulfill its purpose within the overarching story, but the author expertly weaves a powerful and astonishing narrative which serves to whet the readers appetite for further reading into the conflict and the arguments for its resolution. Readers are dealt with gritty reflections on humanity within each family’s courageous handling of grief, and searing insights on Bassam and Rami’s resolve to participate in the Combatants for Peace, a civil disobedience movement, and the Parents Circle, a grief forum for Palestinian and Israeli families, for which both men are Co-Directors.

McCann’s prose is rhythmic, spare and raw, going back and forth in chronology, examining numerous angles and causalities which affect these anti-occupation crusaders and the communities around them. While the author’s voice is succinct, some of the scenes were so devastating and concepts so bizarre that this fictional masterpiece took me, a speed-reader, over eight weeks to finish. Oftentimes I needed to reflect on the images the author conjured, and found myself reaching for my smartphone to google historical concepts that I had heard of but of which, I am embarrassed to admit, I was blithely ignorant – Intifada, Dead Sea scrolls, stories from the Jewish Holocaust, French Artist Philippe Petit’s tightrope incident with the white dove (the symbolic cover image of the novel), Yasser Arafat’s reference to the Olive Branch at the United Nations General Assembly in 1974, amongst others. As the book filled me with insight, it also brought forth questions that had my mind brimming with curiosity.

While you may find its nomination for the 2020 Booker Prize is fraught with controversy, I would argue that Apeirogon is nonetheless a must-read novel on this subject matter. The book will haunt you throughout and beyond your reading, due to its thought-provoking and impactful narrative, and unique presentation style. It’s so strikingly original and mind-boggling, I’d wager you have never read a novel like this before.

I would recommend this extraordinary account to lovers of thought-provoking fiction and seekers of literary hyperrealism, and thus confer it a perfect score of 5 Stars (for my Goodreads review).

BOOK REVIEW: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Review by Tina Isaacs

[Honest review in exchange for a review copy by Times Reads​]

Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton, May 2019) is a portrayal of the interconnected lives of twelve protagonists, predominantly women of colour, in modern day Britain. The novel presents a compelling narrative which spans generations, presenting the loves and tribulations of an array of characters: from first generation immigrant matriarchs to disillusioned youth, women traumatised by betrayal to feminist activists.

This is my first encounter with Bernardine Evaristo and I am now most assuredly a fan. Like sharp nails digging into my brown skin, the novel’s depiction of the struggle of “Otherness” in Britain resonated deeply with my experience as a teen of colour in the English education system during the 80s. The dialogue and characters’ reflections on their seemingly bleak lot in life were delivered with insightful aplomb and humour. I still can’t shake off the image of the old lady whose “face gone slack except for a mouth that holds all her misery like a drawstring tightened around a pouch”, or the people “wearing outfits so tight you can see their hearts beating”. Then there’s the precocious child who “was never told off for speaking her mind, although she was told off for swearing because she needed to develop her vocabulary”. When I wasn’t enraptured by the protagonists’ pain and courage, I was nodding and laughing away.

Evaristo’s experimental style throws writing rules out the window – more “telling than showing” and prose in stanza format. The fast-paced plot is delivered without linear chronology but never loses the reader’s engagement. As I delved deeper into the novel, I found myself on tether-hooks to find out how the different lives intersected. As it neared its conclusion, I was already planning a reread.

In the seeming dearth of literature portraying women of colour, Evaristo’s book stands out as a heartfelt contemplation of their experiences in modern times, generations after the abolishment of slavery, apartheid, and the advent of feminism. In my humble opinion, this 2019 Booker Prize Shortlister* is undoubtedly a necessary testimony to their voices.

For me, Girl, Woman, Other earns a perfect 5/5 Star score and I am pleased to recommend it to those fond of literary realism or fiction which focus on the existential and philosophical reflections, with a twist of humour.

*EDIT: This book was subsequently named joint winner of the Booker Prize 2019, with Margaret Atwood’s The Testament.