Book review: These Things Hidden by Heather Gudenkauf

These Things Hidden is an interesting and well-told story. Starting with Allison’s early release from prison for good behaviour, the narrative gathers pace slowly, revealing how her fateful actions on a night five years ago are still affecting the lives of the four main protagonists.

Allison was the blue-eyed girl of the small Linden Falls community. The darling of her parents and teachers, she could do no wrong, until that fateful night… Now, she is out of prison and in a halfway house, where the rest of the women are unable to reconcile with her heinous crime. Low on confidence and abandoned by her family, Allison gets a new lease of life when Caroline offers her a part time job at Bookends.

But when Allison sees Joshua, Caroline’s adopted son, the past comes rushing back. A past that Bryn is working hard to forget. Unable to take Allison’s place in her parent’s heart, heckled and stared at as “the killer’s sister,” Bryn leaves Linden Falls to stay with her grandmother, where she looks after broken and maimed animals. By fixing those broken creatures, she hopes she can mend herself, torn as she is by guilt over the events of that fateful night, when she helped Allison give birth to her child while their parents were out for the night.

No one knows of the child except for Charm, sister of Allison’s boyfriend Christopher, and Gus, her step-father. Allison left her son at Charm’s house, saying her parents knew nothing about her pregnancy and that she couldn’t care for the child. Torn between the love she felt for the baby boy and tired as she was looking after Gus, who was battling with lung cancer, Charm was forced to make a difficult choice. She left the baby at the fire station, hoping that he would find a loving family.

Joshua gets that family with Caroline and her husband Jonathan. But with Allison working at Bookends and determined to re-establish contact with Bryn, things are about to come to a dramatic head. Only the two sisters know exactly what happened on the night Joshua and his twin sister were born, and the secrets are about to explode.

As the story unfolds, so does Allison’s character – she isn’t the two-dimensional cardboard cut-out she is initially made out to be. There are hints of a dysfunctional family and a younger sister who is deeply disturbed. Heather also does a wonderful job of exploring motherhood from the point of view of the four protagonists. Allison’s dysfunctional relationship with her mother leads her to be detached from her own children, as she refuses to even acknowledge that she is pregnant. Brynn, who lives in her sister’s shadow, is given a few opportunities to rise to a mothering role, but her failure leads to her mental complexities and to her outpouring of love for crippled animals. Charm is already playing the role of caregiver to her step father, and is unable to take on the added responsibility of looking after a baby herself, but even after giving him up, she checks in on him to see that he is well and happy. And then there is Caroline, who wants nothing more than to be a mother, and fulfills that role well. Her only shortcoming, if you can call it that, would be her over-possessiveness and the extra care she takes of Joshua.

On the whole, this is an interesting read. While you might be able to guess some of the plot twists, you won’t be able to guess them all! The writing is wonderful and the plot development and characters are well-rounded. You won’t regret picking this one up!

Book review: Mornings in Jenin – Susan Abulhawa

Mornings in Jenin tells the story of the Abulheja family. The patriarchs of the family, Haj Yehya and Basima, live in the small village of Ein Hod. The novel opens in 1941, during the olive harvest season as Yehya and his family and neighbours gather to pick the fruit. The first few pages (and years) set the stage for the family, introducing us to Yehya’s sons Hassan and Darweesh, Hassan’s Jewish friend Ari Perlstein, and Dalia, the Bedouin girl who steals their heart.

“In a distant time, before history marched over the hills and shattered present and future, before wind grabbed the land at one corner and shook it of its name and character, before Amal was born, a small village east of Haifa lived quietly on figs and olives, open frontiers and sunshine.”

Their idyllic life is shattered by the “nakba” (cataclysm) in 1948, when the Israelis forced the villagers of Ein Hod off their land and sent them to the refugee camp in Jenin. Narrated by Amal, Hassan and Dalia’s daughter who is born in the refugee camp, Mornings in Jenin traces the story of her brothers – Yousef, whose love for his wife Fatima and for Palestine will set him on a collision course with his brother David (Ishmael), who was lost during the nakba and brought up as a Jew. It also interweaves Amal’s tale of love and loss, of her enduring friendship with Huda and mornings spent with her father, of living through the loss of her parents – her father as a casualty of the Six Day War, her mother as she lost her mind after that war – of moving to a Jerusalem orphanage to study, settling in the US, falling in love, and returning to Jenin with her daughter.

Kids at the Jenin camp (Image via Flickr)

This is by no means an easy book to read – it’s filled with pathos and loss, sorrow and separation, death and loss – but the prose is lyrical and the writing fluid. I came to love some of the characters and found myself wishing and hoping they’d pull through, but unfortunately, not all of them will.

This is the first book I have come across that presents the Palestinian point of view. It isn’t unbiased – there is the matter of Hassan’s Jewish friend Ari Perlstein who disappears after the first few pages and only puts in an appearance at the end of the narrative and of Israeli attacks on Jenin apparently without any provocation from Palestinians – but it is an important book.

“The story of one family in an obscure village, visited one day by a history that was not its own, and forever trapped by longing between roots and soil. It was a tale of war, its chilling, burning, and chilling-again fire. Of furious love and a suicide bomber. Of a girl who escaped her destiny to become a word, drained of its meaning. Of grown children sifting through the madness to find their relevance. Of a truth that pushed its way through lies, emerging fro a crack, a scar, in a man’s face.”

The Jewish suffering is well-known thanks to the many excellent books available on the holocaust and the creation of Israel – Leon Uris’ Exodus, Schindler’s List, Anne Frank’s Diary and Man’s Search for Meaning are just a few examples.  With Mornings in Jenin, readers will finally get to hear the Palestinian voice, to know of the many atrocities committed in refugee camps in that area, and maybe, to gain a better understanding of the “Palestinian situation”.

In closing, I’d say that this book is a must read for anyone who is interested in the Israel-Palestine issue, and even for those who are not.

Absolutely putdownable: Lajja

Taslima Nasrin wrote Lajja in a span of 7 days following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on 6 June 1992 and the subsequent persecution of Hindus in Bangladesh. Maybe the book would have benefitted if she had spent some more time thinking about what she was writing.

The book reads like a laundry list of Hindu areas and temples that have been demolished in that country over the years — and the result is so boring that I couldn’t even bring myself to finish the book (a rarity).

It did seem to start with a promising idea — a Hindu family who refused to flee from their homeland despite the mass exodus that had been taking place around them over the years caught in the cross-fire of the 1992 riots. It could have made for an excellent novel, Taslima Nasrin could have portrayed a lot of the history she wanted to by building the story and fleshing out the protagonists.

Instead, the protagonists are not even 2-dimensional and there is no story or major plot to speak of.

At every stage, there is either a long bullet list of atrocities committed by Muslims against Hindus and a list of temples and villages burnt down, or protagonists speaking lists of areas that were affected by the riots.

And this was the book that was banned in Bangladesh, and that caused a fatwa to be issued against Nasrin? What a shame!

Nefertiti by Michelle Moran – a review

Well-researched and beautifully written, Nefertiti is a compulsively readable first novel from Michele Moran, who gives gives readers a beautiful glimpse into the life and customs of ancient Egypt. Tracing the rise and fall of Pharaoh Akhenaten and Nefertiti, the story is told from the point of view of Lady Mutnodjmet (Muty), Nefertiti’s younger sister.

Married to Akhenaten, the unstable and suspicious 17-year old co-regent of Egypt, who is determined to break with tradition by replacing supreme deity Amun with a little known sun god Aten, Neferiti was chosen by Queen Tiye to balance and moderate his heretical views. Desperate to carve her name in history, however, Nefertiti soon throws caution to the wind and supports and encourages all of Akhenaten’s follies.

Knowing he cannot do much until his father, the Elder, is still Pharoah, Akhenaten decides to move to the desert city of Amarna, where he establishes his capital. However, since he is arrogant and unsuitable to rule over Egypt, Nefertiti’s father Vizier Ay becomes the real power behind the throne, working hard to reverse the damage caused by Akhenaten and ensuring he gains the upper hand over Vizier Panahesi, the father of Akehnaten’s first wife, Kiya.

That sets the premise for palace politics, court events and power struggles. The characters are well developed and engaging, and Michelle Moran manages to pull you into their lives from the first page itself.

Richly detailed, the novel brings alive the sights, sounds, colors and texture of life in ancient Egypt.

Her wig came below her shoulders and behind her ears, emphasizing her cheekbones and slender neck. Every strand of her hair played music when the beads came together, and I thought there wasn’t a man in any kingdom that could refuse her. Her entire body glittered with gold, even her toes.

And if you’re like me and wonder how much of the novel is based on truth, these words from the Author’s note at the end of the book should be encouraging:

While the main historical events are accurate, such as Ay’s rise to power, Akhenaten’s obsession with Aten, the dream of Amarna, and Nefertiti’s unparalleled influence at court, liberties were taken with personalities, names and minor historical events. For instance, no one can be certain how Mutnodjmet felt about her sister’s vision of an Egypt without the Amun Priests, but in an image of her found in Amarna she is standing off to one side, her arms down while everyone else is enthusiastically embracing Aten. In a period where art attempted to portray reality for the first time, I found this significant.

All told, this is a beautiful book that will transport you to the life and times of the epitome of beauty – Nefertiti. A must read.

If you like historical fiction, be sure to check out The Raven Spell’s review of The Courtesan by Susan Carroll. It looks like a very interesting read – definitely on my to-read list!