The Secret River by Kate Grenville [T/W: racism, colonialism, sexual assault]

a nutshell: the efforts of a London convict, William Thornhill, to reinvent himself as a gentlemanly landowner on a hillside outside Sydney become a microcosm for the atrocities committed by the British colony against Aboriginal people

a line: “in the world of these naked savages, it seemed everyone was gentry”

an image: every scene with Smasher Sullivan, another ’emancipated’ settler, is extremely disturbing – but among the most horrific is one in which he flaunts an Aboriginal woman he has chained up as his sex slave

a thought: on finishing this bleak book I was (as often) left deeply ashamed of Britain’s imperial history; Thornhill’s exploitation of his eventual position of power – despite, or due to, an impoverished background – is irredeemably repulsive

a fact: the main protagonist, Thornhill, is based on a family member of Grenville; the author used to ask her mother what had happened to Aboriginal people on their ancestors’ arrival and ended up digging into her family history to discover the hideous truths

 

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Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa

a nutshell: a Parsee girl, Lenny, candidly narrates her 1940s Lahore childhood as it mutates from a life of carefree mischief & chatter among miscellaneous friends to Partition-provoked horrors & heartache

a line: “Don’t hog God!”

an image: a colonel retells the story of the Parsis’ migration to India from Persia during the Arab invasion in 600s AD, evoking how the Indian Prince noted their arrival with a full glass of milk as a polite signal of his aversion to outsiders & their potentially disturbing alien ways; the Parsee forefathers returned the milk with a teaspoon of sugar stirred in – an indication that they’d be absorbed harmoniously into the country and sweeten the lives of his subjects

a thought: privy to adults’ tense discussions of the inevitable split, Lenny begins to notice that everyone she knows suddenly goes from being just themselves to being ‘Hindu’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Sikh’, or ‘Christian’; tribalism is forced onto them – as the country breaks, so too does her own community fracture

a fact: India and Pakistan have been embroiled in numerous conflicts since 1947, and just today Pakistan has announced it shot down two Indian military jets; sadly the clashes depicted in this now 28-year-old novel show no signs of abating

 

want to read Cracking India (aka Ice Candy Man)? visit here

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

a nutshell: Tambu, a young girl in a deprived Shona village, cautiously recounts her years of struggle against sexism & racism in the hope of gaining an education and opening up opportunities for her family within a society that presumes her failure

a line: “You have to keep moving … Getting involved in this and that, finding out one thing and another. Moving, all the time. Otherwise you get trapped” (– advice to Tambu from her semi-westernised cousin, Nyasha)

an image: it’s hard to watch as Tambu’s painstaking efforts to grow maize and earn her primary school fees are thwarted by sabotage & scorn – her brother’s active hostility to the prospect of her schooling is one of many reasons behind Tambu’s frank opening statement that she was “not sorry” at his death; we learn that he constantly gloried in the exclusion & oppression she had faced as a girl since birth

a thought: memory is an ongoing source of anxiety to Tambu, particularly around identity; her observations on how (i) her brother’s British missionary education erased his self-recognition and generated a warped sense of superiority (ii) her cousin’s English upbringing tore at her roots and left her deeply unsettled

a fact: the title is from an intro to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Eartha 1961 text on the trauma of colonisation, which contains the line: “The condition of native is a nervous condition”; Dangarembga does not shy away from exposing the insidious influence of British colonialism, which lurks behind scenes of subservience, conservatism, misogyny, linguistic alienation, trauma,  hypocrisy, injustice… (the ramifications are endless)

want to read Nervous Conditions? visit here