Book Club: Fargate from the Madding Crowd

editorial image

The story of a woman living on death row in Zimbabwe may sound like hard going, but this read of the fortnight is a very special book, and an enjoyable read.

Honestly. I’d love to receive a reader review on what you made of it. You just need to write 250 words about your impressions of the book, and get in touch via email copydesk.southyorks@jpress.co.uk or twitter @AnnaCaig

This fortnight we also have a reader review of Wyl Menmuir’s The Many. And a Reyt As Rain reads to get you thinking about no less than the meaning of life itself.

Read of the fortnight:

The Book Of Memory by Petina Gappah

This is the life story-so-far of Memory, a woman living on death row in Zimbabwe, sentenced for the murder of her wealthy white benefactor.
We kick off with Memory’s memories of being sold by her parents as a nine-year-old.

But where we go from there is far from straightforward.

This is one of the most jumbled narratives I have ever read. And to begin with I found the style occasionally frustrating. There is a lot of jumping back to replay the same events, and we didn’t seem to be getting very far.

But, I suppose, so it is with our memories and the tricks they play.

And as a meditation on how people remember the complex web of interconnected events that make up a life, both what is real and what is misunderstood, this book is something special. Gappah is particularly strong on how memories of events in childhood shape the rest of our lives.
It got under my skin.

Just let yourself be carried along by the waves of story, and this is a brilliant read.

And then just as I was used to Memory’s leapfrogging-around-her-life narrative style, she stops it, and becomes all conventional.

This really is a book of two halves (or rather, a book of three quarters and one quarter).

The final quarter contains a lot of exposition and tying up ends neatly, occasionally bordering on the saccharine.
But there is so much to enjoy in this book we’ll forgive the flirtation with cheesiness at the end.
Gappah is a lawyer, and her confidence navigating the legal intricacies of Memory and her prison-mates’ circumstances is clear.

And the glimpses we get of the changing political landscape in Zimbabwe are beautifully done; the insight is worn lightly.
My favourite thing of all about this book, though, is the belief in the redemptive power of reading that shines through the whole story.

I am a sucker for a book about loving books.

And Memory understands that there is nothing better than the right book at the right time.

Or in some cases, any book at any time: the biggest heartbreak of prison life being the absence of reading matter. There are some genuinely affecting moments on the importance of reading in the life of a bookworm.
A fascinating and moving book.

Reader reviews:

The Many by Wyl Menmuir

Laurie says: Wyl Menmuir’s debut novel crams its influences, both literary and filmic, into its regrettably few pages. There’s elements of The Shipping News, The Wicker Man, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At the End Of The Lane, Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory and Straw Dogs in there – but this is a piece of fiction, long-listed for the Man Booker Prize no less, that is entirely the author’s own.

Timothy Buchannan buys an abandoned house on the edge of an isolated village on the coast, sight unseen. When he sees the state of it he questions his sanity, but starts to renovate the house for his wife, Lauren, to join him there.

When the villagers see smoke rising from the chimney of the neglected house they are disturbed and intrigued by the presence of the newcomer, creating an intrigue that begins to verge on obsession. At this point, I desperately wanted to rewatch Sam Peckinpah’s odd Cornish western Straw Dogs, only to realise it was far too disturbing for this 40-something family man.

Back to the review, and, the longer Timothy stays, the more deeply he becomes entangled in the unsettling experience of life in the small village.

Then there’s Ethan, a sea skipper haunted by ghosts of the recent past, new arrivals and regretted departures.

Menmuir creates a woozy, turbulent, sea-based yarn that never gets ideas above its lifeboat station. Clocking in at a very economical 170-odd pages, it may be small but it is perfectly formed, the kind of book you can devour in a sitting, maybe in a bus shelter overlooking a rugged coast.

Reyt as Rain Reads... books to make it better

Jess says: I have been feeling anxious since coming home from an amazing holiday.

I am looking for books that will help me forget about the little things that I worry so much about, as they are often insignificant.

I want inspiring reads that will give me a nudge to focus on what is important and make my life better, so I feel like I did on holiday.

Anna says: I have every sympathy with your predicament.

Coming home after a special holiday can feel like flopping back down to earth with a crash, bang, whimper.

I have chosen a couple of outstanding books that should provide a different perspective on your everyday life, rather than necessarily inspiring you to set off on your travels again.

Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins is a great book to read when you feel like you’ve hit a rut.

If you want to have a good look around and see what life has to offer, it will help you get into a mindset where you can put convention and expectation well and truly to one side.

This is about broadening your view of the possibilities open to you.

If you’re thinking this all sounds a bit like cosmic hippy fare, you’d be right - this was written as a loving homage to the Summer of Love lifestyle.

But be reassured that it is also a brilliant story.

Amanda and Jean-Paul Ziller set up a roadside flea circus and hot dog stand in Washington State. Their unconventional approach to life will have you questioning everything. In the best possible way.

My second recommendation is one I have chosen before in Reyt As Rain reads, but it is so perfect for your situation, I couldn’t resist picking it again.

Yann Martel’s The Life Of Pi is a book that describes an extraordinary adventure: sixteen year-old Pi travels from India to Mexico in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger after the ship he is travelling on with his family sinks.

But The Life Of Pi is really about the stories we tell ourselves about our own lives.

The message of this book is that most of the time we can decide what to think about the things that happen to us.

And this makes all the difference.

We can be in charge, whether the adversity we face is an impossible journey across the Pacific, or the niggling worries of mundane life.

Even if these books don’t quite send your anxiety packing, they will provide a few enjoyable hours of escapism and entertainment. I wish you all the very best.

Send your requests for book suggestions to Anna by emailing copydesk.southyorks@jpress.co.uk or contact her on Twitter at @AnnaCaig.