If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here – Sarayu Srivatsa

She pressed packets of black seeds of the magic peepal tree into Amma’s hand. ‘One a day,’ she said, raising her finger. ‘Eat the seed before or after the midday meal. But remember, it is before the meal for a boy and after for a girl.’

Amma took a seed out of the packet and held it between her fingers, then tossed the seed into her mouth. She ate the rice and potato curry; she finished the pachadi and the sweet. Then, after she’d eaten, when Patti was not looking, she swallowed two more seeds.

That was the precise moment when Siva’s fate looked at him cockeyed.

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Mallika, Siva’s Amma, becomes pregnant with twins: a boy and a girl. The girl, Tara, arrives with the umbilical cord still around her neck and dies moments later. The boy, Siva, survives. But Mallika wanted a girl and her grief for Tara leads her to reject Siva and accuse her husband of killing Tara. It’s not until Patti, Siva’s paternal grandmother, sees a swatch of silk – cinnamon-brown, painted with a peacock, parrot, leaves and a lotus – fly from the pages of a ledger and decides to wrap Siva in it that Mallika accepts him.

But Amma called me Tara. And Appa called me Siva. Patti called me both Tara and Siva. I was both a boy and a girl to her. Only I didn’t know whether I was a boy pretending to be a girl or the other way around. I was four years old.

The family live in a Victorian villa in Machilipatnam, South India. The villa was previously owned by an Englishman, George Gibbs and is now the property of the institute which bears his name, the institute of which Appa is now director. There he researches mosquitoes and malaria.

During Mallika’s pregnancy, she finds George Gibbs’ ledger in the attic of the house. Part-inventory for textile dyeing, part-diary, his words are incorporated throughout the story, eventually becoming interwoven in unexpected ways.

At the back of the site they found a grave, with human bones embedded in the dust. A skull smiled up at them from the dirt…The contractor asked me to find another location for the house…[he] gravely told me that ghosts had memories and they looked for someone to latch on to. If I lived here on this land, then the dead person’s memories would seep into me and haunt me all my days.

It’s George Gibbs’ ledger which the swatch of silk flies from that Patti wraps Siva in. It’s this act which seems to ensure that Gibbs’ memories will affect Siva’s life.

Siva spends his childhood and adolescence questioning whether he is a boy or a girl. He looks at the people around him; he learns about exceptions; he meets Sweetie-Cutie and a group of hijras; he reads George Gibbs’ ledger, and throughout it all he wonders whether Tara still exists inside of him.

Through Siva’s story, Srivatsa questions whether a person’s gender is created or is innate. While Gibbs’ story allows her to examine whether history does repeat itself in the same place and suggests there might be a more positive future for those whose gender is more complex than the male/female binary allows for.

The whole novel’s told in striking, playful prose. Whether she’s describing the howling of the wind which echoes Amma’s cries: ooooowr-oooowar-oowat-oowata-oowata-r-wate-r or Tara’s appearances in Siva’s head, like when Patti decides to take a stray dog in and names it Churchill: I shaped my mouth and said something like ‘Cha-chi’. Cha-chi-cha-chi, Tara went on and on in my head or describing Siva’s feelings on the return of Mallika’s depression:

My bare necessities became bare. I despaired, and so would Baloo the Bear despair. I should have known then, it was the beginning of ‘over’ time.

O-V-E-R.

If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here is a stunning book. It deals with pertinent issues of gender through interwoven stories of two cultures. The tales are completely engrossing and the writing’s both inventive and precise. I’ll be surprised if I read many better books this year.

 

Thanks to Bluemoose Books for the review copy.

Ones to Read in 2016

2016 is already being talked about as a ‘vintage year’ in terms of forthcoming books. In the second half of the year there’s a spate of second novels from writers who published fantastic debuts two or three years ago. There’s also lots of promising looking books from more established writers. I’m looking forward to all of those but there’s the first half of the year to talk about first.

Initially, I was going to limit this list to ten books; I could’ve populated that list three times over with the wealth of good stuff coming in the next six months. So, the list’s a little longer and the books I’ve chosen to recommend are those that, for me, had the ‘wow factor’ (often for different reasons). Listed in order of publication, all publication dates are UK and subject to change; full reviews will appear on the week of publication.

Human Parts – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

Human Acts centres around the student uprising in Gwangju, South Korea in 1980. Beginning with Dong-Ho working in the gymnasium where the bodies are being brought and looking for the friend he abandoned, the story moves through a variety of characters as the repercussions of the army’s suppression is felt throughout the city. Brave, brutal, brilliant.

Wow Factor: the variety of voices/perspectives (credit to Deborah Smith’s translation); the sudden switches to violent imagery

#ReadDiverse2016 #womenintranslation #translationthurs #ReadWomen

Published by Portobello Books 7th January 2016

American Housewife – Helen Ellis

A short story collection giving voice to a variety of American housewives. From the emails of two neighbours who move from passive aggressive to downright aggressive moves regarding the décor of their shared hallway to the struggling writer taking part in an antiques reality TV show to the woman allowing junior pageant participants to escape, this is a sharp, darkly funny look at women’s lives.

Wow Factor: the dark humour; the insight into people’s (often appalling) behaviour

#ReadWomen

Published by Scribner 14th January 2016

Paulina & Fran – Rachel B. Glaser

Art students, Paulina and Fran, meet at a party. Self-conscious and desperate to be liked, they (Paulina in particular) behave appallingly, feigning an air of indifference. But when they leave art school, they have to negotiate their own ways in the world and decide how much their friendship’s really worth.

Wow Factor: the dark humour; the insights into a type of female friendship and behaviour

#ReadWomen

Published by Granta 14th January 2016

If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here – Sarayu Srivatsa

Mallika gives birth to twins but only one survives: a boy, Siva. But she wanted a girl and refuses to believe her daughter’s dead. She calls Siva, Tara and flies into a rage if anyone attempts to do otherwise. Narrated by Siva, who believes his sister lives within him still, this is a beautifully written novel about trying to find your own identity.

Wow Factor: the language; the storytelling

#ReadDiverse2016 #womenintranslation #translationthurs #ReadWomen

Published by Bluemoose Books 21st January 2016

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon

If you’re on social media, you’ve no doubt heard lots about this novel already. If hype puts you off, ignore it and get stuck into this regardless. The story of a ‘normal’ street in England in the heatwave of 1976. Margaret Creasy’s disappeared and she knows everyone’s secrets. Ten-year-olds Grace and Tilly set out to find her and uncover a whole lot more in the process.

Wow Factor: the psychological insight

#ReadWomen

Published by Borough Press 28th January 2016

Rush Oh! – Shirley Barrett

Eden, New South Wales, 1908. The story of a whaling season told from the point-of-view of Mary Davidson, the 19-year-old daughter of a whaling family. There’s whales, running a family after the death of their mother and a romance with former Methodist minister, John Beck. Often funny, feminist and fascinating.

Wow Factor: the voice; the descriptions of the whales and whaling

#ReadWomen

Published by Virago 4th February 2016

Under the Visible Life – Kim Echlin

The 1960s. Two girls. Mahsa, born to an Afghan mother and an American father, is orphaned after her parents are killed. When the relative she’s sent to live with discovers her relationship with a boy they send her to study in Montreal. There her love of jazz music grows and brings her a lifetime’s friendship with Katherine. Born to an American mother and a Chinese father who she never meets, Katherine sneaks out and begins playing the jazz clubs as a teenager. They lead her to a lifelong romance with an unreliable man. A gripping story of women who want more than society wants to allow them. Already a firm contender for book of the year.

Wow Factor: the language; the protagonists; the insight into relationships, marriage and family

#ReadWomen

Published by Serpent’s Tale 4th February 2016

Martin John – Anakana Schofield

Martin John is an ‘inadequate molester’. Sent to London by his Irish mother, he works, goes to visit Aunty Noanie, phones his mum regularly and circuits Euston Station looking for women he can rub up against. As his mental health deteriorates so does Martin John’s behaviour, revealed in vignettes and repetitive language. But it’s his mother’s story that will really get to you.

Wow Factor: the language; the mother’s story

#ReadWomen

Published by And Other Stories 4th February 2016

The Ballroom – Anna Hope

1911. An asylum on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. Ella Fay’s incarcerated for breaking a window in the textile factory in which she worked. John Mulligan was brought there emaciated and destitute. When John and Ella meet at the dance inmates are allowed to attend on Friday evenings if they’ve been ‘good’, a romance begins. The third wheel in the story is the doctor, Charles Fuller, who’s been at the asylum for five years. A disappointment to his parents, he decides he’s going to make his name with some research on eugenics. Gripping.

Wow Factor: the language; the treatment of the main theme

#ReadWomen

Published by Doubleday 11th February 2016

Mend the Living – Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore)

Told over a 24-hour period from the moment Simon Limbeau’s alarm goes off and he leaves to go surfing with his friends to the point when his heart is transplanted into someone else’s body. de Kerangal tells a gripping tale of the procedure that occurs when an emergency transplant can take place. As the timeline progresses, she dips into the lives of all those involved in the procedure.

Wow Factor: the language; the dipping into the life of each character involved in the transplant

#womenintranslation #translationthurs #ReadWomen

Published by MacLehose Press 11th February 2016

Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh

1964. 24-year-old Eileen is thin, jagged, angry and unhappy. She lives with her retired, ex-cop, alcoholic father and works as a secretary at a private juvenile correctional facility for teenage boys. Desperate to leave her grim homelife, Eileen dreams of moving to New York. The novel tells the story of the week before Christmas 1964, the week Rebecca Saint John comes to work at the facility. Dark and disturbing, the less you know about this book before diving in the better.

Wow Factor: the perspective; the plotting

#ReadDiverse2016 #ReadWomen

Published by Jonathan Cape 3rd March 2016

Not Working – Lisa Owens

After the day she felt an impulse to start swallowing office supplies, Claire Flannery quit her job to work out what she really wanted to do. Told in vignettes about her long-term relationship with Luke, trips on the tube, increasingly drunk nights out with friends and fall-outs with family members, Claire could be any one of us.

Wow Factor: the protagonist; the insight into a 21st Century female psyche

#ReadWomen

Published by Picador 21st March 2016

The Cauliflower® – Nicola Barker

A fictionalised biography of guru, Sri Ramakrishna. Told in fragments partly by his nephew, Hriday, but also by an anachronistic film director and another narrator. Using haiku and script as well as prose, Barker tells the story of a man elevated by faith and raises questions about the nature of worship.

Wow Factor: Barker’s unique style

#ReadWomen

Published by William Heinemann 21st April 2016

My Name Is Leon – Kit de Waal

1980. Tina gives birth to baby Jake when Leon’s nine, but she struggles to cope and when the upstairs neighbour rings social services Jake and Leon are taken into care. Initially they both go to live with Maureen, an experienced foster parent, but soon baby Jake – who’s white-skinned – has people who want to adopt him. Older, black-skinned, Leon is left with Maureen and his anger at the unfairness of the world. Searing and heartbreaking.

Wow Factor: the voice; the insight into a life of poverty, mental illness and foster care

#ReadDiverse2016 #ReadWomen

Published by Viking 2nd June 2016
Thanks to all the publishers for review copies.