Book Lists for All Humans #2

BookListsforAllHumans

I didn’t expect it to be so soon but here we are, courtesy of this list of Top 10 Books to Make You a Better Person in The Guardian. Four white men (sounding good so far, right?), three men of colour, three white women. Verdict = could do better (the pun wasn’t intended but I’ll take it).

There’s a problem with this list because I don’t know what making someone a ‘better’ person means. Who decides the criteria?

I’ve gone for books that made me think about the world differently (and avoided any I included in list #1 although they’re all relevant too); feel free to interpret it in your own way and leave your suggestions in the comments.

An Untamed State – Roxane Gay
Haiti, kidnapping, rape, privilege, poverty

The Country of Ice Cream Star – Sandra Newman
Dystopia, AAVE, disease, love, war, religion

Under the Udala Trees – Chinelo Okparanta
Love, religion, ‘cures’ for homosexuality, Nigeria, women

Just Call Me Superhero – Alina Bronsky (translated by Tim Mohr)
Disability, friendship, love, sexuality

Blonde Roots – Bernadine Evaristo
Counterfactual slave narrative, race reversal

The Repercussions – Catherine Hall
War photography, Afghanistan, love, women, history

Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged – Ayisha Malik
Hijab, dating, religion, family, writing

Tell No Tales – Eva Dolan
Far right, immigration, politics, crime, corruption

The Book of Memory – Petina Gappah
Race, class, albino, women in prison, perspective

The Glorious Heresies – Lisa McInerney
Working class, feminism, religion, crime, coming of age

(Links to my reviews.)

 

Books of the Year, Part One: Pre-2015 Publications

Like last year, I’ve read a lot of books so I’ve decided to split my books of the year post into two – those published pre-2015 and those published in 2015 (UK dates where applicable). The latter will appear tomorrow, in the meantime, here’s my pick of the former. Clicking on the book cover will take you to my review.

The Country of Ice Cream Star – Sandra Newman

Not just a book of the year, this is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Set in the Nighted States sometime in the future and narrated by fifteen-year-old Ice Cream Star. White people are dead of a disease called WAKS. Black people die of something called Posies at eighteen/nineteen. Ice Cream Star’s brother, Driver, is dying and she sets out to find a cure. Written in a futuristic version of AAVE, the novel considers race, religion, politics, class, war and love and has one of the best heroines ever. Newman also gives good interview, you can read my interview with her here.


Prayers for the Stolen
– Jennifer
Clement

Ladydi Garcia Martínez was dressed as a boy until she was eleven, as were all the girls in her village. This was to prevent drug traffickers kidnapping them. But Ladydi’s friend, Paula, was taken and – astonishingly – returned. Clement illustrates the way poor, brown skinned women in an exposed state in Mexico are treated by men. Fathers are feckless; brothers are dangerous. An unknown man entering the area is to be feared. Houses are peppered with bullet holes. Ladydi’s narration lifts this from being utterly bleak and Clement’s plot twists, often buried in a mid-paragraph sentence, are brilliant.

 

The Gypsy Goddess – Meena Kandesamy

The story of the Kilvanmani massacre and events leading up to it in 1968. A small village in Tamil Nadu, where the farm labourers haven’t had a pay rise for ten years and any insubordination against the landlords results in beatings. When Communism arrives, the local workers stand strong but their strength results in a massacre in which 42 villagers, mostly women and children, are killed. This is also a book about how you might tell the story of a massacre and the problems you might incur. Intelligent, layered, funny metafiction blending facts and storytelling.

 

how to be both – Ali Smith 

how to be both either begins with George in the car with her recently deceased mother discussing a moral conundrum or it begins with a 550 year old painter returning (sort of) to see his painting in an art gallery and to tell us about his life. George’s section is about life after the death of her mother; Francescho’s is about his youth and becoming an artist. Smith considers what art is and what’s its value, as well as how to be two things at once – alive and dead, watched and watcher, male and female. One of the joys of reading the novel is spotting the connections between the two sections.

 

Every Kiss a War – Leesa Cross-Smith

A collection about our battle with love: to find it, to keep it, to get over it once it’s gone. Teenagers deal with abortions, parental arguments and first loves:your heart beating like two quick tick-tocking clocks, like two fists with their muffled punching. Adults negotiate beginnings, endings and whether to stay or go: And staying in love is like trying to catch a light. To hold it in my hand. Even when it looks like I have it, I don’t. Ranging from flash fiction to interlinked stories, this is a confident, beautifully written collection.

 

 

Geek Love – Katherine Dunn 

The story of the Binewski family. Crystal Lil and Aloysius Binewski created their own freaks, experimenting with ‘illicit and prescription drugs, insecticides, and eventually radioisotopes’.Five children survived: Arturo, known as Aqua Boy; Electra and Iphigenia, conjoined twins; Olympia, a hunchback, albino dwarf, and Fortunato, known as Chick, who appears to be ‘normal’ but is revealed to have telekinetic powers. Competition is fierce between them. The sub-plot, set in the future tells of Olympia and her daughter, Miranda, pursued by heiress, Mary Lick, who pays for women to be operated on so they’re less attractive/less likely to be exploited by men. A cult classic.

I Love Dick – Chris Kraus

My review of this was bumped to January 2016 due to #diversedecember but I love this book. Chris Kraus and her husband, Sylvère Lottringer, have dinner with Dick, a cultural critic and acquaintance of Sylvère’s.  Chris falls for Dick and begins writing letters to him. The love is largely unrequited but she explores her feelings for him through the letters. The second half of the book, in particular, becomes much more than that, it’s filled with critical essays on art and theorists and explores the role of women in culture and life. A book you need to read with a pencil in hand. Should be described as ‘a classic’, rather than ‘a feminist classic’.

Quicksand and Passing – Nella Larsen 

Two novellas packaged together. In Quicksand Helga Crane searches for happiness. It’s always fleeting and she moves on until she finds herself trapped. Passing, the stronger of the two stories, focuses on a rekindled friendship between Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry. Clare is passing as white to the extent that not even her racist husband knows she’s black. The tension comes from knowing she’s bound to be exposed but also the devastating consequences her reappearance has on Irene’s life too.

 

Blonde Roots – Bernadine Evaristo

A counterfactual slave narrative in which black people rule the world and whites are slaves. Divided into three sections, the first and third focus on Omorenomwara/Doris Scagglethorpe and her attempt to escape Chief Kaga Konata Katamba (KKK) and return to her family. The middle of the novel is the chief’s story of his involvement in the slave trade. His pronouncements about the inferiority of the Caucasoinid are supported by anthropology, ideas of savagery and a mission to save souls. Very funny in a horrifying sense. The reversal highlights the ludicrousness of the slide trade as well as reminding us of the barbarity of it.

How to Be a Heroine – Samantha
Ellis 

On a visit to Top Withins, the house that inspired Wuthering Heights, Ellis has a revelation: My whole life, I’d been trying to be Cathy, when I should have been trying to be Jane. It leads her to revisit heroines from her formative years and consider others she didn’t read at the time. Part-memoir, part-literary criticism, fearlessly feminist, this will add to your TBR books you want to read and books you want to revisit. Part of the joy of this book is the space Ellis leaves for you to discuss and argue with her. I didn’t always agree with her points (#TeamCathy) but I was always engaged.

 

 

Mân – Kim Thúy (translated by Sheila Fischman)

Mãn is raised by her third mother after the first dies and the second retreats from the world. Maman takes her to a big city and passes on the things her mother has taught her. Maman finds Mãn a husband and moves to Montreal to live with him, helping to run his restaurant. As it becomes more and more successful, Mãn travels to Paris where the cookbook she’s co-written has also been a success. There she meets another restaurant owner and falls in love. Told in first person narrated vignettes, this is a beautifully written and emotionally engaging book.

The Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction Shadow Panel Winner

After hours of deliberation – during the reading of the longlist, the rereading of our shortlisted titles and over dinner – we have chosen a winner and it is:

How to be both – Ali Smith

We felt that How to be both is an impressive achievement, a major and significant piece of writing. We all particularly enjoyed the ‘modern’/George section: the way Smith plays with language; the ambiguities that she writes into the narrative (this is, of course, also true of the ‘historical’ section), and the way the George section is illuminated further by the Francescho section (we felt that the George section was stronger than the Francescho section but enjoyed the way they played off each other). As an interesting aside, we all commented on the scene where George and Helena play with the shopping trolley in the car park – such a vivid piece of writing. How to be both is a worthy winner.

FullSizeRender-4We thought it would be interesting to reveal the process we went through to find our winner – it’s something that fascinates us about prize juries – oh to be a fly on the wall!

We’ve had a discussion group set up since the longlist was revealed and we’ve posted regularly as to what we thought about the books as we were reading – there were some brilliant (and sometimes very heated) discussions.

Shortlisting, however, was a lot simpler than we thought it would be. There were five books that the majority of us agreed on. The sixth slotted into place very quickly from the remaining books that two or more of us had put forward as worthy of a place on our shortlist.

When it came to deciding a winner, we met in person (see photo. Dan unfortunately couldn’t join us so made his wishes known and they were taken into account at every stage). We had a very lengthy discussion talking about each of the books on our shortlist – pros and cons – where we agreed and disagreed about their qualities. At the end of the discussion, there was only one book we could agree wouldn’t be our winner.

We decided that we’d each list our top two books – unranked – to see if there was commonality there. It was clear at this point that How to be both featured in five out of six of our top two books and we had our winner.

I think what’s also interesting here is that How to be both was half of the panel’s top book – the other half of the panel named The Country of Ice Cream Star as their top book. I mention this not just because I personally love that book but because we felt that the achievement of Sandra Newman in creating a world so fully realised, using a created dialect and taking us along – making us care for Ice Cream Star and her quest – deserved to be acknowledged.

Shadowing the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction with five fantastic people and passionate readers has been a brilliant experience. We hope you’ve enjoyed following it as much as we enjoyed taking part.

Interview with Sandra Newman, author of The Country of Ice Cream Star + giveaway

Giveaway now closed.

If you were following my Bailey’s Prize longlist reading, you’ll know there was one book on the list that I thought was extraordinary. That book was The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman. (Click on the title to read my review.) The novel’s narrated by fifteen-year-old Ice Cream Star in the Nighted States. White people have died out from a disease called WAKS and the remaining black people have truncated lives, contracting posies and dying when they’re eighteen or nineteen. As the novel begins, Ice Cream Star’s brother has the disease and when she discovers there might be a cure, she sets out to find it.

Two things make the novel quite different from your average slice of literary fiction. The first, as I’ve already mentioned, is that the world of the novel is peopled almost entirely with black characters. The second is that Newman’s written the whole book in a futuristic version of African American Vernacular English.

After I’d finished reading the book, I spent days thinking about it so I was absolutely thrilled when Sandra Newman agreed to answer some questions about the writing of it. If all this makes you want to read the book – and I so hope it does – there’s a chance to win one of five copies after the interview.

Where did the initial idea for The Country of Ice Cream Star come from?

I started writing the book in a period when I was struggling with bereavement; three of my closest friends had died. Two were male friends, who had been like brothers to me for years, so Ice Cream’s relationship with her brother comes directly from that feeling of loss. And the whole idea of the book – which is kind of a Gilgamesh story about someone who can’t accept mortality, and goes forth to defeat Death – comes from my inability to accept the death of these friends. I wanted to write a book in which you could have that feeling, and do something about it, and ultimately win.

So I came up with the world in which everyone dies of a disease when they’re still teenagers, and the heroine who refuses to accept that, and goes on a quest to find a cure for the disease.

How did you go about creating the voice of Ice Cream Star (and the groups who live in Massa) and how did you sustain that for an entire novel?

I didn’t initially intend to write the book in an invented patois. But when I started to write the book, it had to be set in a future world, and I wanted to the voice to feel absolutely real. I’ve always been the kind of writer (and reader) who needs a story to be completely convincing. When I was writing the book in standard English, I just couldn’t believe in it. A hundred years had passed. Obviously English would have changed in that time, especially if there were no schools and no media, and the language was only being spoken by children and teenagers.

So from there, the language ended up being informed by African-American English. I’ve given a lot of reasons for this, but the bottom line is just that it’s my favorite English, and probably objectively the best English going. It also gave me not only a model for innovation in the vocabulary, but a starting point for innovation in the grammar. And finally, most people are familiar with it to some degree, so readers have a starting point for understanding it.

Once I had the flavor of African-American speech in the language (and don’t get me wrong – it’s not African-American Vernacular English as spoken now, but it’s obviously strongly influenced by it) it felt like the characters should be black. Or, put another way, why shouldn’t they be black? I mean, it became a choice to make them anything but black.

And then, as soon as I thought of them as black, the book came to life in the most incredible and inexplicable way. It began to write itself. I don’t know why this is, since the book isn’t about race – or it’s only very occasionally, tangentially, about race. It just suddenly felt like a real world I had discovered, rather than an imaginary world I was inventing. Everything fell into place.

I was very aware that this was a controversial thing to do, as a white person. I thought about it a lot, and questioned my position, and etc But after a while, I couldn’t really help writing the book that way because it worked. Also, the characters very quickly became real people to me, who demanded to be written about as they were.

Sustaining it for an entire novel was time-consuming, but incredibly rewarding. In fact, I now find it a little sad writing in normal English, because it’s just not possible to be as inventive. And, just as with any foreign language, there are words in Sengle English for which there are no exact equivalents in contemporary English, so I sometimes end up feeling like my normal speech is an inadequate translation.

Did anyone try and dissuade you from writing the book in dialect? I’m thinking particularly from a commercial standpoint. I assume most readers of literary fiction are Standard English speakers so it deliberately distances, if not alienates, them. It would also create an interesting challenge for translators if it were to be translated into other languages.

There were two people who tried to dissuade me. One was a wonderful friend of mine, who had originally suggested that I try to write a young adult novel (he’s a YA author) as a way of possibly making more money from my writing. He was worried about me because I was always so broke. And, to help me do this, he put me together with his agent, who handles YA, and is very, very successful; the kind of person who does million-dollar deals.

So the agent was very excited about the concept of The Country of Ice Cream Star as a young adult book. (It ended up not really being a young adult book, but at that time it was only 30 pages long, and after all, the heroine is fifteen.) He was not, however, excited about trying to sell a book in an invented patois. And my friend, who had been so concerned about my finances, gently tried to get me to see the possibilities of writing the book in standard English. He told me confidentially that the agent had mentioned the sum of $400,000 as what he thought he could get for the book, if it were only written in standard English.

Well, I said no. Which is kind of startling to me, looking back. And I hadn’t yet shown the book to anyone else, so I had no idea if anyone else would want it.

So I ended up selling the book with another agent (the wonderful and brilliant Victoria Hobbs) for a healthy amount, but not for anything like $400,000. I mean, I think it’s a much, much better book than it would have been in standard English. It couldn’t have been anything like as beautiful.

There’s a great statement that’s been doing the rounds on Twitter for a while now: ‘@fqubed: Dystopian lit is: “what if the government got so powerful that all the bad stuff that’s already happening ALSO HAPPENED TO WHITE PEOPLE?” ‘ You’ve taken that to its extreme in that the white people have been wiped out in the USA. What do you want people to take away from the book in terms of the current situation with regards to race?

Well, there are two answers to that question. As far as people of color are concerned, I just hope they like the book. I mean, I hope black readers can get some pleasure from a fictional America where the norm is to be black, and everyone’s black and it isn’t even an issue, regardless of the fact that the book was written by a white person. But do I have anything to tell them about the current situation with regards to race? I highly doubt it.

As far as white people are concerned, I hope it’s somehow a little mind-altering to spend time in that world where it’s the norm to be black, and virtually all the people – brilliant and stupid, selfish and altruistic, brave and cowardly, whatever and whatever – are black. You know, a world where black = human, and that’s the end of the story.

I do find that often in contemporary narratives, the blackness of a character ends up being their chief feature. Their story is about blackness, and even when the intention is completely good, well, these are human beings with an infinite range of complexity. Black lives are not just about race relations.

But it’s still hard to successfully market a book about (or by) a black person unless it’s about slavery or the Civil Rights movement or (in recent years) microaggressions. This is all about white audiences, of course, and their expectations. I don’t mean to demonize white audiences; but, that’s the history we’ve all grown up with. So I hope that after reading my novel, it might become more possible for some white readers to pick up a book by Jesmyn Ward or Percival Everett and be thinking, “Wow, this looks like a great book,” instead of, “Maybe I should read a book by a black person.”

Still, I don’t think there’s all that much that you can do with one novel. You just add your grain of sand to the gigantic pile of grains of sand that make up a culture, and hope to God you’re adding it in the right place.

Religious and political corruption is rife in the novel; was this intended to reflect current society? Regardless of the make-up of a society do you think there will always be someone who takes power and misuses it?

It was really just intended to reflect any society. So far, we haven’t created a society which is free from power relations, and the abuse of power relations. So, in The Country of Ice Cream Star, we see a series of different societies, and while some are much more corrupt than others, they’re all subject to human frailty. And because human frailty tends to take on similar forms throughout history, there are inevitably echoes of current society.

I was also trying to depict a heroine who is sharp enough to see the hypocrisy and corruption around her, and doesn’t waste time being upset by it, but just tries to use whatever she can to change things for the better. So she’ll work with the corrupt leader or she’ll work with the misguided zealot; she’s just trying to save her people by any means necessary. That was important to me because I was thinking about what makes someone a hero. I think this might be the most important trait in a hero, that willingness to see the evil in the world and just use it like any other tool to eradicate some of the evil in the world.

Ice Cream Star is a very different hero from the likes of recent dystopian protagonists – Katniss Everdeen, Beatrice Prior, Cassia Reyes, for example. There’s a physical and emotional maturity to her that you might not expect in a fifteen-year-old. Is that just a reflection of the situation she’s in or is there also a link to people currently coming-of-age in difficult circumstances?

I think it’s actually a trait of a lot of teenagers. Ice Cream is really childish one moment, and incredibly mature and savvy the next. At that age, a lot of people – especially very smart people – are like that. She’s also lived with a lot of responsibility from a very young age, so she naturally takes up new responsibilities without thinking about it. You can think of that as difficult circumstances, but it’s also an opportunity. I think contemporary teenagers don’t get to show what they could potentially do, if they were allowed to have adult responsibilities.

In the Middle Ages and earlier, it was not uncommon for teenagers to lead men in war (the most notable example being Alexander the Great). And in our grandparents’ generation, it was unremarkable for people to marry and become parents at eighteen. Obviously, sometimes this ended in disaster. But sometimes it ended with the conquest of Asia, or with our parents (in those case where our parents turned out be well-adjusted happy people).

How does it feel to be longlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for fiction?

It just feels incredibly lucky. I mean, I personally love The Country of Ice Cream Star. I think it’s the best book ever, and I can’t help doubting the judgment of anyone who doesn’t love it as I do.

But there are many truly great books that never get longlisted for anything. Judges are human beings, so they have limited time and their own personal likes and dislikes which inevitably affect their choices. And. in my view, should affect their choices, or else what are we even talking about? Virginia Woolf, for instance, was offered the chance to publish Ulysses, and turned it down.

Maybe that’s a little off the point (the point being that I was incredibly, jumping-up-and-down, happy when I got the news) but I know so many struggling (and deserving) authors who just can’t catch a break. So I always think of them whenever I have a piece of luck. (Keeping in mind, of course, that The Country of Ice Cream Star is still literally the best book ever.)

What are you working on now? Can you tell us anything about it?

I’m primarily working on a sequel to The Country of Ice Cream Star, which is partly because the story isn’t properly finished (which you can kind of tell from the ending) and partly because I love Ice Cream and her world too much to let go of it.

But I often work on two projects at one time, so I’m also trying to cook up another book to work on. I haven’t settled on anything quite yet, and the possible books are really various: there’s a post-apocalyptic novel about a ballet company; a contemporary novel about a friendship; a non-fiction book about sexual assault; a non-fiction book about math. My real problem is that I would like to write all these books immediately, and occasionally I lose all sense of time and think I can do exactly that.

And, of course, there are other days when I want to just get a job selling soft drinks on the beach. But I’d probably be terrible at that, anyway. I’d just keep getting distracted and giving people the wrong change.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

Since I’ve already mentioned Jesmyn Ward, I’ll start with her. She won the National Book Award for Salvage the Bones, and she’s still, in my opinion, under-rated. Or at least, under-read.

Then there’s George Eliot, whose books I just read again and again.

I read all of the historical novels of Dorothy Dunnett, while writing The Country of Ice Cream Star, and there’s really nothing else like them.

And, to throw in a science fiction writer, since I am part of that fandom, I’m a huge fan of James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon). It’s sort of a hobby of mine to find ways of making people read her truly astonishing alien-life-form love story Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death.

 

A huge thank you to Sandra Newman for the interview. How thrilled am I that there’s going to be a sequel?

If you’d like to find out for yourselves why I’m so enamoured of this book, Vintage have kindly given me FIVE copies to give away. All you need to do is leave a comment below, begging me to release them from my grasp! I kid. Leave a comment below and I’ll enter you into the draw. Worldwide entries are welcome. The competition will close at 5pm (UK time) on Friday 1st May. Winners will be chosen at random and informed as soon as possible after entries close.

Giveaway winners

As usual, I’ve allocated everyone a number in order of entry, as follows:

1 – Snoakes
2 – Marina Sofia
3 – Claire Fuller
4 – Helen
5 – Lisa Farrell
6 – Kath
7 – Nina Pottell
8 – Paola Ruocco
9 – Jennie Finch
10 – Alison Layland
11 – Rebecca Foster
12 – k
13 – Chyma
14 – Elle
15 – Aisling Gheal
16 – Lydia Syson
17 – Alice
18 – Debbie Rodgers
19 – Naomi
20 – Crimeworm
21 – JAD
22 – Katie
23 – Claire Thinking
24 – Zarina
25 – Judith
26 – Liz Smith
27 – Tina M Holmes
28 – Greythorne
29 – allyblue22
30 – Cathy746Books

And the winners are…

Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 16.38.03 Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 16.38.20 Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 16.38.28 Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 16.38.35 Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 16.38.41

Congratulations Marina Sofia, k, Nina Pottell, Tina M Holmes and Alice. Check your emails. Thanks to everyone else for entering.

The Bailey's Prize Shadow Panel Shortlist

Twenty books, five weeks, six readers and a lot of discussion later (some of it heated – ask six passionate readers how they each feel about a book and prepare to stand back!), here’s the Shadow Panel’s choices for the shortlist. (In alphabetical order by author.)

If you click on the books, they will take you to my reviews. My reviews of all the longlisted books are linked to here. Let us know what you think of our decisions. The official shortlist is announced tonight across all the Bailey’s Prize social media channels at 7.15pm.

The Country of Ice Cream Star – Sandra Newman

When the light shine clear, the broken glass make paths of sparkling moon. Then the bricky walls gleam warm, and all my courage wake. I think: Roos got this cure, we rob it. For my Driver, I face guns and hells, this be my treasure chance.

The north coast of the Nighted States (we know it as the United States of America), sometime in the future. Our narrator is fifteen-year old Ice Cream Star. She introduces herself to us by telling us about her family – her eighteen-year old brother, Driver and her younger brother, Mo-Jacques, who died when he was five and she was six; ‘Still my heart is rain for him’ – and the people she belongs to, the Sengles.

Our people be a tarry sort, and we skinny and long. My brother Driver climb a tree with only hands, because our bones so light, our muscles fortey strong. We flee like dragonfly over water, we fight like ten guns, and we be bell to see. Other children go deranged and unpredictable for our love.

They live in the Massa woods, or at least they do until they’re eighteen or nineteen when they die of a disease they call posies. Some of them think that posies is the same as WAKS, the sickness that killed the white skinned people in America, eighty years previously. Those who weren’t killed were evacuated to Europe, although there’s some anxiety over whether Europe actually exists:

Truth, this Europe mostly be a tale for pacifying littles. Most older children think the sleepers all be dead, but ain’t no proof. If sleepers gone to Europe or to hell, they leave the same bad silence.

On the day the novel begins, Ice Cream, Driver – the Sengle sergeant – and some of the others have been out looking in the evac houses for food, medicine, cigarettes and clothes. In one of the houses are two sleepers, long dead. They set fire to the house to cleanse it but as they watch it burn, someone runs out of the house. The ‘boy’ is white skinned with blonde hair. (I put boy in quotation marks as he soon claims to be thirty-years-old, which, if true, means that his people have a cure for posies.)

Ice Cream Star is the only Sengle to have seen a ‘roo’ (a white person) before. After spending the night in an old library when she was younger, she saw a doe-deer killed by a group of roos first thing in the morning. She believes that roos all have straight hair, are all males, wear the same clothes and ‘run in packs and hunt our people…They slavers, maybe – or they eating children…’.

Driver tries to catch the roo but the roo pulls a gun on him. Ice Cream Star stands between them and takes the gun. And so Pasha Roo joins Ice Cream Star’s world.

Everything I’ve written so far – bar the quotation at the very top of the review – happens in the first eighteen pages of this 629-page novel. And the pace never lets up.

We’re also introduced to the groups who live close to the Sengles. There’s one house of Christings remaining:

Ya, in time before and time remaining, Christings live the same. House got one husband ruling it, with any number of wives and every enfant that they breed. And all believe a god who live in two sticks. Each Christing wear around their neck a string with two sticks crossing – and truth, is healthy people. Can think, this god do something, they live fatter than no Sengle child.

There are the Lowells who live in Lowell mill in Lowell City. They have electricity, generated by the mill’s turbine wheels; ‘water toilets’; their own individual rooms with beds and blankets, and they make paint, furniture and tiles. They breed and sell horses. Ice Cream Star’s own horse, Money, was a ‘flirtation gift of El Mayor himself’.

While introducing us to these groups of people, Ice Cream Star learns two things herself: firstly, that NewKing Mamadou from the Army, the fourth group, has visited the Christings to tell them their queen is dead. They usually take their queens from the Christings but they’ve stood up to him this time. Later, Ice Cream Star will discover that Mamadou intends to take her for his wife. Secondly, El Mayor tells her that Driver’s coughing, which Ice Cream Star’s been excusing, is the onset of posies.

Posies take each person in their sort. Popsicle cough his spirit out. Jay-dee’s belly swell and hurt until she claw it to the blood. Mailman strangle in his throat. He strangle once, then find his breath. Strangle again, and beg for help. Then he cannot bear to wait, he shoot himself in desperate fear. Jennifer been sergeant last. She scream but she forgotten words. Ain’t recognize our faces. Scream a week, then she ain’t speak no more. She stare and dribble her mouth.

And all their face and skin eat up by red and blackish posies. Posies scabbing and they open into sores and horrors. Posies grown inside and outside, blackish death put roots into your body and its flowers bloom.

My death must come before his death. I start a murder war, and all my Sengles die in blood. I blind my eyes and never see the posies come. I shoot my heart.

To simplify The Country of Ice Cream Star to its basic plotline would be to say that the rest of the novel concerns itself with Ice Cream Star’s pursuit of the cure for posies in order to save her brother. But Newman hasn’t created a basic novel, she’s created a complex work with a plot that twists and turns and considers race, religion, politics, class, war and love.

By making people with black skin the dominant race and narrating the story from the point of view of a black skinned woman who speaks in dialect, Newman places the reader – white, standard English speaking readers, more specifically – in a position that is meant to make them feel awkward. They barely exist, this world is not their world and it’s difficult for them to negotiate the language and the way in which this world works. There is no glossary in this book, you have to immerse yourself in it.

Reading the novel reminded me of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. In it, she has a photograph of Glenn Ligon’s Untitled (I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background), which she also references in her writing. It’s as though Newman’s taken Ligon’s work and wondered what the world would need to look like for it to become ‘I Feel Most White When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp Black Background’. And it works superbly, partly because it’s disorientating but mostly because the use of the first person narrator means that you see the world as Ice Cream Star sees it and if you’re white, you’re a roo.

As Ice Cream Star pursues her quest, she meets more groups and more roos and her knowledge of the world grows deeper, as does her understanding of people – black and white.

The protagonist is a brilliant creation. She’s the type of hero Buzzfeed would include in an article about ‘women who give no fucks’ (and in this world, at fifteen, she is a woman and she acts like one). She does care though: she cares about the littles who look to her for direction; she cares about her brother and the men who surround her; she cares about people treated badly and placed in danger. She’s determined to lead her people, regardless of the men who try to take her for themselves/install her as a religious icon/protect her from the brutality of war. But she’s also determined to get the cure at whatever cost it comes at. Of course that price is going to be high.

I’ve been avoiding writing this review for ten days because I didn’t know if I could do this book justice – I still don’t think I can. The language and the ideas in it are worthy of a post-graduate essay; I certainly haven’t teased out everything this book has to offer yet, I expect it to take several re-reads to do so. What I do know is that the language is inventive, playful and thoughtful; the themes are complex and explored through the story, without the heavy-handedness that some literary novels employ, and Ice Cream Star is a wonderful, complex, living hero who acts like a person (as do the supporting cast). I’ll end with my favourite lines from the book, which, I hope, helps show all three of these things. They come from a point where Ice Cream Star is being held up as a religious icon but is about to wage war with the support of the church. One of the apostles is reading to her from the Bible:

Here my patience run entire. Known these metaphorical tales. Metaphorical mean, the story be stupidity beyond. So they pretend it mean something else, whatever they like most.

The Country of Ice Cream Star is definitely a great book. It’s also an important book. Only time can confirm my suspicion that this book will become a classic.

 

Thanks to Chatto & Windus for the review copy.