Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

I absolutely loved this book, by an author I had never heard of: Kamila Shamsie. I picked it up simply because it was on the Booker Prize long list (I’m amazed it hasn’t been shortlisted) and the blurb drew my attention. It contained a spoiler, which is annoying, as it meant I guessed what was going to happen quite early on. However, I can’t say that it really spoiled my enjoyment of this novel, which is a retelling of x and I won’t be giving too much away if I say x is a character in ancient Greek mythology, a vast and very rich seam of story-telling.

Home FireThe first scene takes place in an airport where a British woman misses her plane to the US, because of a security interview. We learn that she is of Asian origin and on her way to study for a PhD in sociology at Amherst. Isma has a younger sister and brother, who are twins, and they are orphans. No one really knows what happened to her father, except that he died on the way to Guantanamo. According to Isma, he “tried his hand at many things in his life – guitarist, salesman, gambler, con man, jihadi – but he was consistent in the role of absentee father.” So absent in fact that Aneeka and Parvaiz, the twins, have no memory of him at all. Since their mother’s death, they had all been living in the same neighbourhood as Aunty Naseem, until Isma went off to study in the US.

While there, Isma strikes up an awkward friendship with Eamonn, also British, who turns out to be the son of an MP back in the UK. The story which then unfolds in a variety of locations involves a love triangle and a nearly love triangle, plenty of dramatic action and lots of heartache for all the protagonists.

I think I enjoyed this book so much because I found it to be beautifully written, full of meaningful introspection, wry dialogues and wonderful descriptions. I loved how Kamila Shamsie infuses very British cosiness in a scene that takes place in a North American café, how she crafts the plot to reshape the ancient tale that inspired her, how there is a humour and pathos in equal measure. Above all, I love how she takes us in the mindset of a troubled young man, of a passionate young woman, of an ambitious politician, of his sweet son.

***

As an aside, Parvaiz is a sound engineer and collects interesting sounds. I read this book while on holiday in the Alps. I had cursed the cowbells on my first day because I found them annoying but I performed a complete U-turn the next day, when I found myself practically in the middle of a herd of cows (Ok, there was an electrical wire between me and them). I completely fell for the charm of the jangling, random, discordant yet weirdly harmonious and soothing music they made; I now think they would have been a perfect subject for Parvaiz and much nicer than what he ends up recording …

 

 

En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule d’Édouard Louis

J’ai trouvé ce livre juste, personnel, bien écrit, édifiant et pourtant, je n’ai pas pris beaucoup de plaisir à le lire. Je peine un peu à trouver l’adjectif pour décrire mon manque d’enthousiasme. Ennuyeux ? non, c’est pas ça ; trop glauque ? pas vraiment, c’est suffisamment habilement présenté pour ne pas tomber dans le misérabilisme exacerbé ; dérangeant, alors ? un peu, parce que l’histoire est assez banale mais elle ne peut laisser le lecteur de marbre Eddy Bellegueule

L’histoire est celle d’un jeune homme au prénom a priori saugrenu étant donné son patronyme (d’ailleurs l’explication du nom est plutôt réussie), élevé dans la Picardie rurale et pauvre, dans un milieu familial violent, situé dans un environnement tout aussi violent et qui découvre son homosexualité dans la douleur et la solitude. Évidemment, dit comme ça, c’est du Zola version 2017, mais si je m’en tenais là, ce serait un peu caricatural, parce que ce livre est plus subtil.

On lit des scènes de vie dans lesquelles le père d’Eddy demande « C’est un mec ou une merde ? Il pleure tout le temps, il a peur du noir, c’est pas un vrai mec », ses bourreaux d’école lui infligent les pires humiliations, sa sœur essaie de le rapprocher de son amie, dans un scénario foireux par excellence pour Eddy et Sabrina, et sa mère lui offre une veste « rouge et jaune criard, de marque Airness », ce « cadeau de lycée » pathétique, qui finit à la poubelle.

On y trouve aussi des chapitres dont les noms n’évoquent pas vraiment un roman : « Les manières », « Vie des filles, des mères et des grand-mères», « Révolte du corps». Au fond, je vois ce livre plutôt comme une étude sociologique qui pourrait s’appeler « Homosexualité chez les jeunes issus d’un milieu défavorisé». J’y ai trouvé un peu de froideur académique et puis aussi un côté « confession » qui m’est désagréable parce qu’il n’y a rien à confesser, justement. Certes, il est intéressant et souvent bouleversant de lire des témoignages de personnes qui se « livrent » mais j’ai l’impression de n’avoir rien lu de très nouveau. Mon problème n’est pas que tout cela n’est pas bien  joyeux, mon problème est que ce chevauchement vécu douloureux/analyse comportementale et sociale ne facilite pas la lecture.

 

Bon, ce n’est pas un livre à lire au coin du feu dans sa chaumière, voilà tout.

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

SapiensThis was another one of my increasingly frequent (on the timescale of my reading life) non-fiction reads, and another one I feel compelled to share my enthusiasm for.

I had in fact just about started hearing about the not so linear evolution of humanoids before reading Sapiens. So I did realise that the traditional tree or the very graphic illustration of a distinctly ape-like figure morphing in several stages into a modern man only tells a partial story. However, this book contains so much more than a simple presentation of that fact. I won’t summarise the book here or outline its contents. I’ll just talk about what stayed with me the most.

 

Without a doubt, the analysis of the true (OK that’s a subjective term, I should say the author’s assertion-backed-by-pretty-convincing arguments version of the truth, but as I find it makes complete sense to me, I’m going for the shortcut of “true”) impact of that major revolution in human history that was the agricultural revolution. I had never thought of it as being a  cause of massive population growth, with the majority of humans producing food from the sweat of their brow (which instantly made me want to check how “old” the agricultural revolution was when Genesis was written, but which I haven’t got round to doing yet, sigh) and the simultaneous establishment of an elite class fed by this labour. Like many others I’m sure, I’d always thought of it as the natural, fairly linear progress of humans of having one bright idea after the other: fire, tool-making, crop growing and livestock husbandry etc. In my mind, this would lead “logically” to population growth, accelerating first with the industrial information and accelerating perhaps again with the digital revolution (but I’m less sure about that). The fact that the agricultural revolution has had a far more profound role in the shaping of human destiny was a real revelation for me.

The focus on empathy to non-human beings was another thing that resonated particularly strongly. Here in France, which generally follows societal trends from Anglo-Saxon countries a little later than the latter, usually having tweaked it a little bit, usually with some conceptual definition no-one had quite formulated in that particular way, the words “végétarien”, “végétalien”  (but increasingly also, sadly, “vegan” although here is not the place for the defence of a range of languages) and “flexitarien” are given far more bandwidth than they used to get. Our (half-French half-British) family is right in the middle of this journey of changing our eating habits. Of course, that is only one aspect of empathy to other species than ours but I mention it because it is clearly linked to  a growing unease over the years of what we are doing to our planet and its inhabitants.

 

Of course, I’m now going to read Homo Deus (I’m assuming Deus would have been an awkward title?) and probably get my mind blown away by human-machine interfaces I have never even thought of thinking about.

Ce blog cause surtout de livres, en français parfois.