The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

The Shadow King book – woman's silhouette on colourful battlefield

a nutshell: this is a powerful, brutal story of what it is to be a woman at war – both within a household & within a country – set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia

a line“These aren’t the days to pretend you’re only a wife or a sister or a mother, she says. We’re more than this.”

an image: an Italian-Jewish soldier-photographer tries to looks behind an Ethiopian prisoner’s face into her mind and sees nothing besides sturdy, thick thoughts of survival & routine, revealing the short-sighted lens of the invaders

a thought: the visceral, ongoing effect that a father’s gentle letter has on the photographer (and by turn on his superior) is a moving glimpse into how toxic masculinity is preventable, not inevitable; men’s violence against women is an incessant theme in the novel – and here I should note that the book contains many graphic descriptions of sexual assault

a fact: the author put together a brilliant article listing books that influenced her own novel; the list features several authors I’ve read as part of this project – Svetlana Alexievich, Aminatta Forna, Jenny Erpenbeck – a reminder of the potency that lies within women’s perspectives on traditionally ‘unwomanly’ fields

want to read The Shadow King? visit here

Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante (tr. Ann Goldstein)

a nutshell: told by a young solitary boy who is essentially raising himself on the isolated Neapolitan island of Procida, this is a story of confused adoration and imagination

a line: “If it weren’t for women, existence would be eternal youth, a garden!”

an image: after the affection-starved Arturo observes N kissing her baby son, everything seemed to be kissing – boats, sea & island, air & leaves, sheep & earth

a thought: Arturo’s father leads a mysterious life – one that would perhaps be infinitely simpler if he were to have lived in the 21st century; the book was published in 1957

a fact: this NYT article is a fascinating insight into Morante’s life

want to read Arturo’s Island? visit here

Southpaw by Lisa St Aubin de Terán

Southpaw book by ivy plant

a nutshell: written over 25 years, these dogged short stories of dispossessed individuals are set first on or around the Hacienda Santa Rita (a sugar plantation in the Venezuelan Andes) then in Umbria, Italy – two places where the author chanced to live

a line: “Life took longer to live in the wet weather”

an image: SPOILER | for me, ‘Eladio and the Boy’ was an especially moving story – I found myself genuinely upset by the scene of inexplicable loss when Eladio’s quiet friendship with a pair of eagles is shattered by human intrusion & violence

a thought: I looked up the definition of southpaw: (1) a boxer whose strongest hand is the left (2) a person who uses their left hand to do most things – which I assume alludes to the stories’ contexts of South America and southern Italy, as well as the narratives of eccentricity (since left-handedness was historically perceived as such) and the characters’ ability both to receive and to administer blows

a fact: in the intro, the writer openly labels herself an “alien observer” in these communities; in the absence of anywhere specific to call home, she says she found an “emotional home in other people’s roots”

want to read Southpaw? visit here