When an online book club I sometimes participate in suggested How to Stop Time, my immediate reaction on reading the blurb was, “Well, this is a book tailor-made for me!” It combines historical fiction with fantastic/sci-fi elements, as its main character has a rare condition called anageria. This is the opposite of progeria, the real-life condition where people age more quickly than normal. Tom Hazard, in this novel (one of many names he goes by), ages about fifteen times more slowly than normal people. He is one of a handful of anagerics who have been alive for hundreds of years; as the novel opens in the present day Tom is over 400 years old but looks to be in his mid-thirties. He has had to move around frequently throughout his life, since if he stays in one place longer than a few years people start to notice that he hasn’t aged and they get suspicious. In the olden days, this could mean accusations of witchcraft or other supernatural shenanigans; today it’s more likely to mean pursuit by ruthless scientists who want to study these “albatrosses” to harvest the secret of eternal youth. So Tom lives in the shadows; he has hung out with Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald in his time, and developed an impressive list of skills, but he’s been unable to maintain any long-lasting relationships, because eventually everyone he loves will be left behind.
Four hundred years later, Tom is still pining after his lost love from the early 1600s, Rose, with whom he had a daughter Marion, who is still around somewhere because she too shares Tom’s condition. The novel relates Tom’s life story in flashbacks, alternated with scenes in present-day London where he tries to blend in as a history teacher (good career choice there), continues his centuries-long search for Marion, and considers the possibility of loving again.
A lot of great fiction confronts the question of mortality, of the shortness of human life and how we can live and love knowing it will all be lost. How to Stop Time comes at this question from the opposite direction: what if you knew that your life was virtually endless, but that all those around you were doomed to age and die? Could life, could love, still have meaning under those circumstances?
I thought How to Stop Time was a lovely and very engaging novel that handled those questions in an insightful and thoughtful way. Tom was a likable enough character that it was possible to empathize with him even though his situation is not one that any of us can relate to. Except that time does keep passing, things do keep changing, and we all, sometimes, want to stop it. So maybe we can relate after all.
I decided to pick up this book (and when I say “pick up” I obviously mean “download” because it’s not like this translation of a 1986 French novel was just sitting on a bookshelf at my local chain bookstore) after I read The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu and reflected on how little I know about African history. This novel is a fictionalized account of the life of a real man who is known to history as Leo Africanus, though that is not the name he was born with. Nor was he African by birth: Hassan, as he was called, was born in Granada in the late 1480s or early 1490s, just as the Muslim civilization that flourished there fell to the Christian crusade of Ferdinand and Isabella. Hassan’s family fled, as many Muslims did, to Morocco, and it is the life that unfolded for him there — as a travelling merchant and eventually a diplomat — that led to him writing a book about his travels across North Africa.
As always, a good historical novel is like a glimpse into another world. Through Hassan/Leo’s eyes the reader visits Granada, Fez, Timbuktu, Cairo and Rome in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. It was a taste of African history that I would like to get much more of, so any book recommendations are welcome!
I don’t know if Everyone Brave is Forgiven is, technically speaking, the “best” book I’ve read so far this year, but it certainly has been the most emotionally engrossing — to the point that I nearly stopped breathing at one point when a character’s life was in danger.
All the characters’ lives are in danger, because the novel is set during the Second World War, in London and also at the front. One character, Alastair, serves in France before Dunkirk and later at the siege of Malta, a piece of the war I’d never read anything about before. The other two main characters, Mary and Tom, are doing war work on the home front during the London Blitz. On the simplest level, the novel is a love triangle among these three characters, but it’s so much more than that. It’s about how terrible times of stress and violence can bring out not only the best but also the worst in people, about questioning what your life’s purpose is, about love and friendship and survival, about how to put the pieces of your life back together after it’s been shattered.
The glimpses of London during the terrible year of 1940-1941 go far deeper than the historical cliches we all know so well about brave Londoners during the Blitz, to really explore how the brutality of life in a city at war exposes divisions along race, gender and class lines. The characters are so memorable and real that I cared deeply at once about what happened to them, and the writing is brilliant in the way Cleave is able to so quickly sketch a scene that reveals so much about that turbulent time and place.
Little Fires Everywhere is a book I heard recommended from all directions before I finally read it, and it did not disappoint. It’s a story about a neighbourhood, a family, and a woman, all which aspire to perfection, and another woman who moves into that neighbourhood and defies its expectations and norms. It’s a coming-of-age story about five teenagers — the three good, conforming children of Elena Richardson’s “perfect” family, along with that family’s black sheep Izzy, and their friend Pearl, daughter of artist and single-mom Mia. Mia and Pearl move into the Richardsons’ lives when Mia rents an apartment from them, but when she becomes their housecleaner and Pearl forges relationships with each of the Richardson teenagers, things get messy.
Complicating all this is a story that involves none of these main characters directly but which all of them get drawn into. A local couple, friends of the Richardsons, have adopted a Chinese baby after years of infertility. But this baby is not adopted from a Chinese orphanage: she was abandoned on the steps of the firehall, and the mother is a local woman who regrets her decision and fights to get her child back. As everyone takes a stand on the controversial case, cracks in relationships and turning point in people’s lives appear, and everyone is tested and changed.
I had a couple of very minor quibbles with this book — I thought Moody’s feelings towards, and relationship with, Pearl, would likely have been clarified before a particular crisis in the story hits, and I expected more of a surprising twist at the end than I actually got. But those were minor indeed for a book I enjoyed reading so much, and the very end packed such a huge emotional wallop that I was briefly knocked back — it was so right and so powerful. Mother/daughter relationships are a very central theme here, which is something I always find interesting, and the complexities of that relationship in its many forms are beautifully, and often painfully, explored in this book. I highly recommend it.
Sing, Unburied, Sing, is a short, intense, powerful novel set in contemporary rural Mississippi. At the heart of the novel is JoJo, a 13-year-old boy with a black mother and a white father who are both mostly absent from his life and that of his three-year-old sister Kayla. Their father, Michael, is finishing up a jail sentence; their mother, Leonie, is sometimes well-meaning but addicted to drugs and obsessed with her own problems (and her love for Michael, which looms far larger than her love for her children). The people who have cared for JoJo and Kayla all their lives are Leonie’s parents, whom JoJo calls Mam and Pop, in whose home they live. Mam is dying of cancer; Pop is the moral and emotional centre of JoJo’s fractured world.
There’s so much going on in this brief and powerful story. Plotwise, it’s very simple: over a period of a couple of days, Leonie takes her two children and a friend on a car trip to meet Michael as he’s being released from prison. Nothing much happens, though at one point it seems like it might. But this book is about so much: race in America, addiction, parents and children, mass incarceration, coming of age, and also, a ghost story. In fact, there are two ghosts — Riche, a boy JoJo’s age who was imprisoned with Pop decades ago, and who died tragically while attempting to escape, and Given, Leonie’s brother who was murdered by Michael’s cousin when they were teenagers. (This is less confusing in the book than it sounds in my synopsis).
Jesmyn Ward is a beautiful writer with a keen and unsparing eye for the details that reveal poverty, bigotry, courage, and hope. I found this a very powerful novel that will linger with me for a long time.