Bookface Blog

Archive by tag: BidishaReturn
Jun 19, 2022

The teacher relates his experiences in the education system – many of them shocking – with insight, intelligence and wit

Jeffrey Boakye draws on 15 years of experience as a secondary school teacher to tackle racism and inequality in Britain’s schools. His experience, like the book, is a mixed bag. For every black student who flourishes under his interest and encouragement, there are instances of overt bigotry and baiting from other students, passive aggression and smirking truculence from peers and colleagues. For every small win there is a depressing realisation, for every apparent triumph a poisonous sabotage. Every time Boakye congratulates himself there is a deep wake of nagging doubts and reservations: “I’ve walked around schools with signs of whiteness jumping out at me at every turn. Science displays of famous scientists from history without a single non-white face represented. Literature timelines guilty of the same.”

Boakye’s tone is pleasantly chatty and lightly humorous; quite a feat while slipping issues of race, class, sex and cultural supremacy into everyday classroom anecdotes. He occasionally lapses into an egregious – and sometimes plain weird – egotism: “Depending on how long you’ve been tracking my movements, you may or may not know that my Twitter handle used to be @unseenflirt… But when the book deals started coming in, I had to think again.” Yet any boasting, humble-bragging and solipsism soon get punctured by Boakye’s actual experiences in the classroom and by the realisation of his own relative smallness in the system.

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May 29, 2022

Patel’s searing novel skitters through a world of toxic exes, mean girls and bad jobs – and it’s addictive

I’m a Fan is a fast, fizzing cherry bomb of a debut by Sheena Patel, mining the darkest depths of coercion, seduction and abuser dynamics. It has the urgency of a diary, mixed with a certain hard and sharp clarity. The narrator skitters through a well-observed urban half-life of bad jobs, bad men, mean streets and atomised “third spaces” – a gym, a gallery, a coffee shop – where human connection is hard to maintain and actual love and kindness seem impossible to find. Instead of joy and friendship, I’m a Fan’s world is one of mistrust and thwarted ambition, emotions that extend well beyond the realm of sexual relations.

Each chapter is bulletin-short, like a quickly whirring TikTok slideshow of skits about toxic exes, mean girls and fuckboys (a repulsive yet sadly relevant term for the seducers and liars in this book). Above all, this is a novel centred around voice, and Patel’s is unique and powerful. Scenes, dialogues, reported actions? Forget it. What you want is the grubby stuff as the central narrator gets played by a sociopathic narcissist who straight-up tells her who he is: “He tells me he has a wife, a two decades long marriage – someone he’s not told me about. He says he doesn’t wear a ring because it irritates his finger… He says, that’s not all.” Indeed that isn’t, and none of it will be a surprise.

I’m a Fan is published by Rough Trade (£14.99)

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Feb 06, 2022

This thoughtful collection reminds us of the narratives that lie buried beneath belittling stereotypes

East Side Voices boasts contributions from a dazzling range of east Asian and south-east Asian public figures, from Eternals actor Gemma Chan to model Naomi Shimada. It grew out of a salon convened by the book’s editor – and acting deputy editor of Harper’s Bazaar – Helena Lee in February 2020, just before the pandemic that Donald Trump branded the “China virus” and “Kung flu”, fuelling a wave of racist violence against east and south-east Asian people.

The anthology describes instances of racism in all its forms: crude vilification, sexualised exoticism, entitlement, self-righteous ignorance and insularity. But it also reaches back through centuries of colonisation, exploitation and migration and reminds us that in the sweep of human history, there is often no fixed motherland and no fixed resting place.

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Aug 01, 2021

The former teenage sensation returns with an acutely observed cast of comic characters

The young French author Faïza Guène is a literary sensation, having published her first bestseller, the contemporary novel Kiffe kiffe demain (published as Just Like Tomorrow in the UK), when she was just 19. That novel’s translator, Sarah Ardizzone, is back on board for Men Don’t Cry, a brilliantly funny, insightful and affectionate novel about life in 21st-century France.

Out go the Emily in Paris cliches of berets and baguettes and in comes a cast of characters who are multilingual, multicultural black and brown French citizens who view their country, and their diasporic histories, with a winning combination of affection, exasperation and pride. The novel is narrated by Mourad, who describes his theatrical mother, gruff but loving father and sisters Mina and Dounia with warmth and wit. At a teacher training seminar, Mourad hears that “being a teacher is a form of bereavement. It means saying goodbye to your passion for literature and mourning the loss of everything you’ve learned at university.”

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Feb 22, 2021

The musician and author’s second novel, about a young person’s search for their vanished father, is beautifully descriptive, if occasionally clumsy

Writer and musician Kerry Andrew’s second novel, Skin, is an atmospheric creation. It follows young Matty, an introverted kid from north London, whose father disappears one day. Matty is convinced that he’s killed himself, drowned or been murdered. However, there are no answers from Matty’s brittle mother, Rosa, or from the wider community, and Matty seeks solace – and clues – in Hampstead’s swimming ponds. Throughout the novel, water functions as an ever-shifting symbol: a place to belong, a space for freedom and play, a death-lure full of secrets, a comfort and a challenge: “It began to have its own call. Water has a song, a near-silent lilt. When you got closer – tarn, pool, river, proper swimming lake – the impatience made you sweat.” Skin stirs with references to water myths, from selkies and mermaids to sirens and cursed bodies of water.

The unease of identity is another strong theme: Matty’s Italian mother and Irish father find comfort and conflict in their homelands, caught by the ties that bind and those that anchor, creating an unresolved restlessness that they pass on to Matty. Meanwhile, Matty’s explorations of sexuality, gender expression and identity glimmer suggestively through the entire novel.

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Feb 08, 2021

The city’s 20th-century history is refracted through the mysterious occupants of a cursed tenement building in Fagan’s richly claustrophobic novel

Jenni Fagan’s third novel is a ripely imagined history, spanning 90 years of life in an Edinburgh tenement building, 10 Luckenbooth Close. This structure enables the careful stacking of characters, political eras and social contexts, floor by floor and decade by decade, from 1910 to 1999. The novel unfolds like a set of dark short stories, with a different character narrating or guiding each one. But there’s a twist: Luckenbooth is not just haunted by the realities of time and history, but also by the strong musk of the gothic imagination.

The opening scenes comprise a portentous origins story, in which a young woman rows ashore in a coffin, arrives in Luckenbooth Close and is used as a surrogate by a wealthy couple. According to this traumatised and painfully self-hating founding character, her late father is the devil and she herself carries a diabolical curse, which goes on to permeate the lives of all subsequent residents of the building for the next century.

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Sep 06, 2020

Although this ‘menopause memoir’ doesn’t break new ground, it is still vital reading

With its intimate tone, honesty and humour, The Shift sits comfortably within the “menopause memoir” genre. Baker divulges her midlife biological embarrassments and steadily softballs the book’s ultimate journey, away from shock and self-pity towards focus, harnessed anger and recalibration.

It covers well-worn but still necessary territory, starting from the early signs of the menopause, midlife weight gain and appearance changes: “Honest to God it was as if the fat fairies had come during the night and coated me with an extra layer of insulation.”

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Mar 29, 2020
The western novel is seen through fresh eyes in this tale of two orphans struggling to survive

Sure to be the boldest debut of the year, How Much of These Hills Is Gold by American writer C Pam Zhang grapples with the legend of the wild west and mines brilliant new gems from a well-worn setting. Its protagonists are neither cocky white cowboys nor Native Americans but two destitute children of Chinese descent, struggling to survive after the deaths of their impoverished parents. The novel begins as a quest as they try to find the means to bury their father, but extends into an excavation of their family history as well as an account of their development as growing adolescents.

The story is heavy with layers of trauma, starting with the grim humour of the children, Lucy and Sam, dragging around their own father’s rotting corpse. It is a stirring setting in which nothing is ever truly safe or comfortable, not even the plain air, which is so hot it “shivers, as if trying to lift off”. Alongside Sam and Lucy’s family story are the stories of the genocide and persecution of Native Americans, the colonisation of the west and the compulsive exploitation of the land by desperate settlers and greedy opportunists. It is a world so physically and morally rough that the young protagonists fetishise tiny details that represent beauty and purity, such as when Lucy notices a girl whose “embroidered white dress… puffs from her tiny waist”.

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