Category Archives: OrangePrize

The Boy Next Door By Irene Sabatini

The Boy Next Door by Irene Sabatini

Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2009

Winner of the 2010 Orange Award for New Writers

Borrowed from the library.

A love story that covers the first decade of post independence Zimbabwe.  Layered in history, ethnic divisions and political struggle and told directly and honestly, this is a wonderful first novel.

In the years following the Zimbabwe War of Liberation, Lindiwe Bishop, fourteen and black, lives next door to a white  family, the McKenzie’s.  One night there is a fire and Ian McKenzie, seventeen, is arrested and accused of a horrible crime.  A year later he is released and the two strike up a secret friendship.  Their relationship, in all it’s sweetness and turmoil, reflects the struggles taking place in a country trying to find political, economic and cultural independence and weighted with a history of ethnic violence and political corruption.

Sabatini uses everyday events, family tensions and the towns and countryside of Zimbabwe to tell a story filled with conflict but never heavy-handed.  A love story that is also a story of love for Africa.

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Filed under OrangePrize, Review

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingslover

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingslover

Harper, New York, 2009

Winner of the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction.

I have loved Barbara Kingslover’s writing ever since I read The Bean Trees many years ago.  Her first books were smart and funny, written with an obvious love of  language.  As she has matured, so has her skill at observation and her ability to write her perceptions of  history, twining these thoughts throughout her work.

The Lacuna follows the life of  author Harrison Shepard.  Born in the United States, his mother is Mexican, his father American.  His mother runs away to Mexico, taking  Harrison with her.  They live in several households, but the boy finds no real sense of home in any of them.  His education begins in kitchens, where housekeepers put him to work.  It continues on the street and in the company of his friend, Leandro, but somehow Harrison always maintains an emotional distance.  Kingsolver is able to bring the reader into his world.  Her ability to evoke place is something I marvel at.

Floating on the sea is like flying: looking down on the city of fishes, watching them do their shopping.  Flying away como el pez valador. Like a flying fish.  The bottom falls, and in deep water you can soar, slipping away from the crowded coral-head shallows to the quiet dark blue.  Shadows of hunters move along the bottom. From pages 34-35.

At the core of this story is the act of writing, gathering words, be it in notebooks or on scraps of paper.  Harrison steals an account book from his mother and begins to write everything down.  He does this for years, making notes about people, places, conversations. During the 1930’s, he returns to school in the US, and writes down bits and pieces of US history, including the Lindberg kidnapping and the Bonus Expeditionary Forces, constantly filling up his notebooks.  His mention of the press reminded me that we have always been at the mercy of the media, be it old-style print or network-style ranting.

The editorial writer applauded MacArthur for sparing the public treasury:  The nation is being bled dry by persons like these who offend common decency.

“Why would the paper say they are criminals?”

“They were treated like criminals,” Bull’s Eye replied.  “So people want to think it.  The paper says whatever they want.”

It was no use reading more, but hard to stop.  The late extra had photos.  A society page.  While soldiers poured gasoline on the shacks, the upper crust were cruising the river on their yachts, watching MacArthur spare the public treasury.  A Mrs. Harcourt required medical attention after she saw a small boy receive a bayonet through his lower body.  Senator Hiram Bingham of Connecticut was badly jostled on the street in front of the warehouse while attempting to leave his office.  His injuries were not mortal, but earned as many newspaper inches as all the others together, including a woman in the Anacostia camp who lost her sight to flaming gasoline thrown in her face, and the vets from the Argonne shot dead in their own country.  A dozen kids got shattered limbs or broken skulls.  Two infants died of inhaling gas. From page 109.

Harrison returns to Mexico and ends up working for Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and eventually, Leon Trotsky.  Here again Kingsolver places her protagonist with real people and in real situations, constantly shining a light on what we may or may not think we know.   It is during this time, with Frida Kahlo’s encouragement, that Harrison begins to believe in himself as an author.

“Look, Frida.  I’m going to tell you something, and it doesn’t even matter if you make fun of me.  Ever since I was fourteen and read Cortes, I’ve been writing a story about the Azteca.  Mostly in my head, but a lot on paper.  And now I can see that I’ve had the story all wrong, all this time.  I’ve spent years writing something really stupid.”

She nodded, biting into a tamale.  “Tell me in what way it’s stupid.”

“My impression was from books.  The ancients seemed to be…what the professor said.  Locked in a struggle for greatness.  Heros and battles, mythic kings.”

“Well nobody knows how they were, so you can make up anything you want.”  She pawed through the basket for napkins.  She brought the blue-and-yellow ones.  “A story is like a painting, Soli.  It doesn’t have to look like what you see out the window.”  From pages 196-197.

The novel is actually a compilation of Harrison’s notebooks, brought together by his secretary, a wonderful women named Violet Brown, after his final return to the United States. Circumstances force him to order Violet to burn his notebooks but, luckily for the reader, she chooses to save them.  Kingsolver packed so much into this book that I find it difficult writing about it.  There are too many thoughts in my head, too many pages to quote.  Some readers have struggled with this.  I love it and will end up adding The Lacuna to my personal library, next to The Poisonwood Bible.

I relish the mixing of cultures in Harrison Shepard and in the novel.  Some of my favorite passages reflect Shepard’s observations of both cultures, as he stands on the border, a citizen of neither.

The mother of Jesus, similarly sloe-eyed, bid us sit on a log while she dipped beans from a cauldron that must bubble eternally on the fire outside her hut.  Her name is: Maria, naturally.  Her lath house, like every one in the village, had a tall peaked roof of thatch, open at each gable end for ventilation.  Inside the open doorway a knot of motionless brown limbs, presumably sleeping children, weighed a hammock into a deep V shape, the inverse of the roofline.  At the side of the house a scrambled garden grew, but the front was bare dirt, furnished only with the logs on which we perched.  Mrs. Brown steadied the tin plate on her knee with a gloved hand, tweed skirt pulled around her knees, eyebrows sailing high, calf leather brogues carefully set together in the dust.  Flowering riotously around her were a hundred or more orchids, planted in rusted lard tins.  White, pink, yellow, the paired petals hung like butterflies above roots and leaves.

My beauties, Maria called them, leaning forward to brush a speck of ash from her son’s worn shirt, then gently boxing his good ear.  “The only importance is beauty.”  From pages 392-393.

Other reviews:

A Book Sanctuary

Book Gazing

Farm Lane Books

Fyrefly’s Blog

Nomadreader

The parenthesis and the footnote

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Filed under Authors, Barbara Kingslover, Historical Fiction, OrangePrize

Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros

Caramelo, or, puro cuento By Sandra Cisneros

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2002

Caramelo was nominated for the Orange Prize in 2003.

Borrowed from the library.

Caramelo is a multi-generational novel that  weaves playfully through time.  It is the story of Celaya Reyes, known as Lala, the youngest in a family of seven children, all of them boys except for her.  Cisneros is a master at bringing this family and all their relatives to life.  We first meet them as they travel to Mexico City on their annual trip to visit Grandfather and Grandmother Reyes.

There are many themes running through this novel, women in Mexican society, family vs. independence, religious and social expectations, loyalty, lies and love being just a few of them. Cisneros handles all of this deftly as she plays fast and loose with the structure, adding song lyrics, film references and footnotes along the way.  The novel is fast paced and at times I felt it was veering off track, trying to cram too much in too many layers, but it works.  Somehow all of the history characters and memories hold together to form a wonderful, solid novel.

There are many beautiful scenes and images within all these memories.  Food, its preparation, serving and eating,  is one constant that runs through the novel, as is the difficult relationship between Mexico and the United States.  The title, Caramelo, references many things.  The sweetness of candy, the many colors of the Mexican people, and something that connect Lala with her history.  Her Grandmother came from a family of weavers and dyers, famous for their rebozos, and a special wrap travels through time in this novel.

…The Grandmother snaps open the carmelo rebozo.  It gives a soft flap like wings as it falls open.  The candy-colored cloth unfurling like a flag – no, like a hypnotist’s spiral…

The Grandmother unfolds it to its full width across the bed.  How nice it looks spread out, like a long mane of hair.  She plays at braiding and unbraiding the unfinished strands, pulling them straight with her fingers then smoothing them smooth.  It calms her, especially when she’s nervous, the way some people braid and unbraid their own hair without realizing they’re doing it.  With an old toothbrush she brushes the fringe.  The Grandmother hums bits of songs she doesn’t know she’s humming while she works, carefully unworking the kinks and knots, finally taking a comb and nail scissors to snip off the ragged ends, holding the swag of cloth in her arms and sniffing its scent.  Good thing she thought to burn dried rosemary to keep it smelling sweet all these  years.  From page 254.

Fieda Khalo with red rebozo

Lala ends up with this beautiful shawl and a deeper understanding of her family.  I read The House on Mango Street many years ago and now want to read it again.  My thanks to Claire at kiss a cloud for suggesting I read this book.

Other reviews:

Biblofreakblog

Eva at Color Online

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Filed under Fiction, OrangePrize

The Road Home by Rose Tremain

The Road Home by Rose Tremain

Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2008

Borrowed from the library.

Winner of the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction, 2008.

The Road Home is the story of an East European immigrant, Lev, and his journey to England to raise money for his family.  In clear, direct prose Tremain shows the reader Lev’s responses to this new world.

Homelessness, hunger, these things had to be born for a while, Lev told himself.  Thousands – even millions – of people in the world were hungry and had no proper place to sleep.  It didn’t necessarily mean they died or lost hope or went crazy.

But by this, the end of his first working day in London, Lev could see that it would be impossible to survive delivering leaflets for Ahmed.  From a fruit stall, Lev bought two bananas, and from a bread shop, a soft white roll, and from a post office, a stamp for his Princess Diana card, and from a shop selling newspapers a pouch of tobacco, some cigarette papers, and a bottle of water – and then his five pounds was gone.

Lev meets people, makes friends, and finds work he enjoys, always remembering those he left behind.  He learns he has to let go of the past in order to move into the future, and that there are thing he can just not control.  He is a fully developed character, with faults and flaws, yet filled with a kind of grace.   In the end Tremain creates a true sense of home for Lev, his family and family, and for the reader.

This is the first Tremain novel I have read and I loved it.  I plan on reading other books by this wonderful author.

Other reviews:

Bermudaonion

Caribousmom

Farm Lane Books

Reading Matters

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Filed under Fiction, New Authors 2010, OrangePrize, Review