Picador Posts

Naomi Wood, “Mrs. Hemingway”

Naomi Wood, “Mrs. Hemingway”

Naomi WoodOne afternoon she finds a copy of Ernest’s tribute to the president.

Ernest had greeted the request from Washington with something close to cold fright. For too long, now, he’s been an unhappy writer. To lose his ability to write was to have lost the ability to clear his mind of itself. To write was to come into a wonderful house:  a clean well-lighted place where the light fell in large white blocks on the good wooden floors. To write was to be at home, to be able to see well. 

The request was for a few handwritten lines for Mr. Kennedy. That week in February Ernest sat in his study, looking with nervousness over the barrel of his stomach. Misery hovered close. She had often wondered why he couldn’t give up on this wretched business. They had enough money from royalties, film options, magzine deals. If he could send off the Paris stories and then put himself to the work of hunting or fishing, he might have a better chance of happiness. But writers and their woes: they couldn’t be parted. Not for anything. 

( p.245 Mrs. Hemingway )

Naomi Wood’s second novel, Mrs. Hemingway is about Ernest Heminway’s four wives — Hadley Richardson, Pauline Pfeiffer or “Fife”, Martha Gellhorn and Mary Welsh. The book is divided into four parts: each part focused upon a Mrs Hemingway with Ernest Hemingway a strong presence but not the centre of attention. The story flows smoothly with the structure of each section devoted to the current Mrs Hemingway, their lifestyle — parties, gossip among friends, children, and marks the entry of the next Mrs Hemingway. Each section is imbued with the distinct personality of each wife, whether it is the practical and hardworking Hadley; the comfortable lifestyle that Fife could provide for Hemingway, giving him the leisure to write without any financial worries; a common passion shared by Martha Gellhorn and her husband for journalism, writing and reporting World War II; and finally Mary Welsh, who unlike her immediate predecessor, was happy with her life of a writer’s wife. Unfortunately it fell apart with the sudden death of her husband.

There are details about Hemingway and his wives life that are authentic. The meticulous research shows but only sufficiently to create a rich backdrop to the story, a personal one of within a family, the torment the wives experience with the appearance of another woman in their lives, the ensuing divorce and surprisingly how some of them, like Fife and Hadley, remain good friends. The author was given a three-year doctoral grant by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. She did her research at the JFK Library in Boston, Beinecke Library at Yale University and at the Hemingway heritage homes in Oak Park, Chicago; Key West, Florida; and San Francisco de Paula in Cuba. The best description of this novel would be to call it “bio-fic”, a term coined by David Lodge. In 2014, when there will be deluge of literature being published focused upon the centenary of World War I Mrs. Hemingway sets a high benchmark for fiction set during this period. This group biography maybe “a work of imagination” as asserted by Naomi Wood, but it is so deftly done–it is a pleasure to read. 

Naomi Wood Mrs. Hemingway Picador, London, 2014. Pb. pp. 330 Rs. 599

6 March 2014

Jim Crace, “Harvest”

Jim Crace, “Harvest”



“…life should be allowed to proceed in its natural and logical order.” (p.226)Jim Crace, Harvest

Philip Crace’s novel Harvest is set in 16C England. At a time when unenclosed commons were being converted into enclosures, owned by an individual. It was a sweeping agricultural change that was changing the character of the villages and a way of life familiar to villagers. Harvest is narrated by Walter Thirsk, an outsider to the village who was brought here when his master, Master Kent, married the daughter of the manor. Twelve years on, both the men are widowers, and within seven days there is a massive transformation in the village that they had begun to know well. With the arrival of strangers — a couple, including a woman with a magnetic personality, a chart maker, and the new owner of the manor who had come to stake his claim– there is utter confusion in the small community. In the space of seven days the village and its community is destroyed, the houses burnt to rubble and the people have fled.

It is probably no coincidence that there are very strong Biblical parallels in the story and in the imagery used. If Jim Crace had not made it clear in an interview ( http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/jim-crace-author-of-bookershortlisted-quarantine-im-leaving-craceland-8488415.html ) that he has never read any novels by Thomas Hardy, I could have sworn that the landscape he has created is very Hardy-esque. The form and structure is so reserved and sophisticated, at times you miss the violence and destruction that it is conveying — the accusations of sorcery and witchcraft, the disappearance of the women and the five-year-old Gleaning Queen, the unnecessary brutal slaughter of Master Kent’s horse, the burning of the manor, the near lynching of Master Jordan’s groom etc.

Harvest is on the ManBooker shortlist. The winner will be announced on 15 Oct 2013. My bet is that this novel will be a strong contender.

Jim Crace Harvest Picador, London, 2013. Pb. pp. 275 £ 12.99

Sunjeev Sahota, “Ours are the Streets”

Sunjeev Sahota, “Ours are the Streets”

Sunjeev Sahota

This is an old review of mine. ( Here is the original link: http://www.dnaindia.com/lifestyle/1543283/review-ours-are-the-streets-from-sheffield-boy-to-suicide-bomber ) It was published on 15 May 2011 in DNA. I am reposting it on my blog. Sunjeev Sahota has just been recognised as one of the twenty promising writers in the Granta 4: Best of Young Novelists anthology.

Ours Are The Streets is a story well-told, with admirable logic and precision. The author uses English and Hindustani, moving between the two languages effortlessly.

Imtiaz Raina is a British-Asian born and brought up in Sheffield. He is leading the typical life of an undergraduate — hanging out with friends, being stubborn and defiant with his parents (asking of them often, “Why can’t you be normal?”), but also getting aggressive when his dad, Rizwan, a taxi-driver, receives racist abuse from his passengers. Imtiaz is unable to comprehend how his father could bounce back the following morning, and “be ready to fall in love with the world again.” And yet, he marries a “white” girl, Rebekkah or Becka or B, who agrees to “revert” to Islam, and raise their daughter, Noor, as a Muslim.

All this changes when Imtiaz returns to Pakistan with his Ammi, to bury his father. The time away from UK proves to be a life-changing period for Imtiaz.

He whiles away his time on his uncle’s farm with his clan, including a collection of male cousins. Sometimes, a ‘friend’ like Aakil would take the “velayati” for an occasional visit to the neighbouring city. The sights and smells of the crowded and narrow lanes, the rotten roads, the cow dung strewn are an assault on his senses, but he is comfortable being “at home”, for here in the village, “I were always so and so’s grandson or such and such’s nephew or whatever. I were never just me, on my own . . . And I loved that. It were like for the first time I had an actual real past, with real people who’d lived real lives. Now I think that maybe when Noor takes her kids back home . . . they’ll sit in the shade of a banyan tree and listen open-mouthed to stories of the struggle that I, their baba, were part of.” So, when it is suggested that they take a trip to Kashmir and later Afghanistan, Imtiaz is ready. He thinks of the journey as an adventure, little realising the impact that it would have upon him as he is transformed from a Sheffield lad into a suicide bomber fighting for a cause.

Ours Are The Streets is a story well-told, with admirable logic and precision. The author uses English and Hindustani, moving between the two languages effortlessly. The use of the interior monologue shows the sure but insidious way in which a ‘normal’ person can be brainwashed into becoming a shaheed.

Ours Are The Streets
Sujeev Sahota
320 pages

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