Tag Archives: family

Book review – Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

I’m not sure I can remember reading as compelling and timely a book as Home Fire.

Image courtesy of Firstpost

Kamila Shamsie forces us to think about one of the most important issues of our times through complex but believable characters, a shocking plot and a searing insight into Muslim culture and faith,  colliding painfully with the Western world.

The story unfolds like a flower in spring, through the eyes of each protagonist in turn as the seasons pass, until the bleakest of winters and all hope of fresh green renewal has been extinguished.

Isma is free. After years spent raising her twin siblings in the wake of their mother’s premature death, she resumes a dream long deferred – studying in America. Here, she gets to know Eamonn, the privileged son of a powerful British Muslim politician.

Back in London, Eamonn meets – and falls in love with – Aneeka, Isma’s beautiful, young and headstrong sister. But is Eamonn’s love returned, or is Aneeka cruelly seeking political support through Eamonn’s father to help her beloved twin brother Parvaiz?

The central core of the novel tells of Parvaiz, a British-Pakistani Muslim who comes to understand how his father fought for the Taliban and died a glorious death en route to Guantanamo Bay. Parvaiz’s vulnerability is seized on by Farooq, a cynical recruiter for the ISIS cause in Syria.

Image result for islamic state flag

Karamat Lone, Eamonn’s father and Home Secretary, arrives late in the narrative, caught in the crossfire of an unwinnable conflict between faith, ideology, politics, family and love.

But these are only the bare bones of Home Fire. The author weaves layer upon layer of complexity into the story through deft dialogue, subtle shading and brilliant scene-shifting.

Home Fire educates as much as enthrals. It would be a worthy winner of the Man Booker prize for 2017.

 

Big Birthdays

My 60th birthday is just around the corner. It feels like A Big One, a final trip over the threshold of middle age and the beginning of a long, slow fall into the basement of old age.

Image result for old age clipart

How will I mark this bitter-sweet occasion? Gill is generously taking me away somewhere for a couple of days the week before….I know not where. I will hopefully celebrate The Big Day somewhere with the family. And then it’s off to Greece, to magical Zagori in the Pindos mountains of Epirus, an intriguing area I only discovered last year.

No doubt our group of 13 will eat plenty of the excellent local food and partake frequently of friendship-inducing tsipouro, between bursts of energetic mountain-climbing, gorge-walking, horse-riding and whitewater-rafting.

Early Big Birthdays are hazy. Or perhaps I was too focused on bean-counting studying and exams to celebrate 18th and 21st milestones.

I suppose the dedication paid off. I spent my 30th in beautiful life-changing Bermuda, although a joint 29-and-holding Miami Vice party with cute Canadian Diane Olchowik is even more memorable. A long night of Don Johnson no-socks and sleeves-rolled-up dancing and drinking culminated in a bit of skinny-dipping in Sonesta Bay as the sun rose on the island’s legendary south shore beaches.

Image result for don johnson miami vice sleeves rolled up

Fast forward 10 years and I was working in Germany for a few months. I had just met Gill, now my beloved wife of nigh on 20 years, and she helped to co-ordinate a lovely surprise 40th birthday bash at my brother’s place, while I was home for the weekend.

The Big 5-0 was marked by a moment of madness: climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak and a staggering 5,895 metres above the wildlife of Tanzania’s Serengeti. The motivation was as much to raise money for a very good cause as it was to shake a fist at the advancing years.

Actually, we climbed Kili in February, a few months ahead of my birthday, to take advantage of one of the climbing windows. May came and it was an excuse for a long weekend of drunken debauchery in the blues bars, pizza places and casinos of Soho.

And here I am, on the cusp of 60. How did that happen? Where have all the years gone? Will I make it to 3 score and 10….?

I’ll report back on the 60th activities. Just in case it’s the last Big Birthday I feel like marking in any memorable way.

Related image

 

Movie review – Lion

Image result for lion movie

A 5 year-old boy lives in poverty in rural northern India, but is much loved by his hard-working mother and older brother Guddu.

Tragically, he is accidentally displaced to the mean streets of Calcutta, where he survives with other lost children, until swept up into a secure facility. Unspeakable things happen here, but young Saroo is fortunate and is adopted by a caring Australian couple.

Image result for lion movie with nicole kidman

He settles in well – Nicole Kidman as your new Mum can’t be a bad experience, after all – but the family unit is destabilised by another arrival from India. Saroo’s newly adoptive brother Mantosh struggles with demons that he sadly never really overcomes.

Saroo thrives in Tasmania though, and qualifies to study hospitality management at university in Melbourne. He embraces the cosmopolitan environment there, and meets and falls in love with Lucy, sympathetically played by Rooney Mara.

But 25 years after being separated from his real family, Saroo becomes desperate to track them down, with inevitably damaging consequences for his Australian family and friends.

Based on a true story, this is a charming film, if a little mawkish at times. I defy you not to be reaching for the Kleenex when Saroo, played by Dev Patel, finally locates his village and family in India.

Image result for lion movie with dev patel

Two things linger in my mind after seeing Lion. The scene where Sue Brierley tells Saroo that she and husband John could always have had children of their own, but wanted to offer a better life to parentless children from a poorer society.  And the caption – as the closing credits roll – that 80,000 children are lost in India every year.

 

 

Book review – The Red House

Mark Haddon is a genius.

I still haven’t read his best-known work The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but I loved A Spot of Bother.

And now The Red House has made me envy his literary talent even more.

On the surface, it’s a simple tale of two families spending a week together in a self-catering cottage on the Welsh border, near Hay-on-Wye. But page by page, master story-teller Haddon wraps you up in a darkly comic web of characters. They wrestle with history, youth, ageing, confusion, sexuality, anger…and each other.

Richard is a middle-aged doctor, outwardly successful and recently married to new second wife Louisa, who comes with the hefty baggage of feisty teenage daughter Melissa.

Estranged sister Angela arrives with shallow loser of a husband Dominic, three very different children – each with their own issues – and the ghost of stillborn daughter Karen, whose 18th birthday coincides with the week in The Red House.

There is no single central character, there is no earth-shattering incident, nobody dies and there’s no magical rapprochement between the distanced siblings. But through short sharp sentences and paragraphs, lurching from one character and small incident to the next, Haddon deftly paints a picture of disparate people coming to terms with life, if not each other.

Here’s the writer inside the head of spoiled, confused, beautiful but self-loathing 16 year-old step-daughter Melissa:

She sat on the floor between the bedside table and the wall. Laughter downstairs. She pushed the point of the scalpel into the palm of her hand but she couldn’t puncture the skin. She was a coward. She would never amount to anything. That fuckwit little boy. She should walk off into the night and get hypothermia and end up in hospital. That would teach them a lesson. God. Friday night. Megan and Cally would be tanking up on vodka and Red Bull before hitting the ice rink. The dizzy spin of the room and Lady Gaga on repeat, Henry and his mates having races and getting chucked out, pineapple fritters at the Chinky afterwards. Christ, she was hungry.

And middle-aged Angela, lost in an unhappy marriage and still grieving for a lost daughter from 18 years ago:

Angela poured boiling water over the dried mushrooms. A smell like unwashed bodies she always thought, but it was the simplest vegetarian recipe she knew. Made her want to roast a pig’s head for Melissa, all glossy cracking and an apple in the mouth. Make Benjy sad, though. Earlier she had told Dominic that she wanted to go home, and thought for a moment that he might actually agree, but he had slipped into the grating paternal role he’d been adopting more and more over the last few days. “You’ll regret it….insult to Richard….hang on in there”….Him being right made it worse, of course. Sherry, tomato puree. Risotto Londis.

The Red House is a cynically perceptive dissection of human frailty. I just hope you never meet my family, Mr Haddon.

 

 

South Australia – Road Trip 2

Days 9 & 10 – Friday, January 23 & Saturday, January 24

Another road trip from our Adelaide city base, another hire car. To Wallaroo, a couple of hours north west from Adelaide and on the top edge of the Yorke Peninsula, staring out into the turquoise water of the Spencer Gulf.

Why Wallaroo? To see Gill’s Aunt Margaret, last seen in the UK about 10 years ago; Gill’s cousin Sharon, last seen in the UK in 1964, aged 11 months and just before her parents set sail for Down Under; other cousins and partners and children of cousins who Gill had never met before.

We made a quick detour to the Barossa Valley en route to Wallaroo, loving Tanunda, the sleepy main town of the glorious grape-growing region, vine after vine tumbling down gently rolling hillscapes and responding to the perfect climatic conditions.

We sipped a couple of chilled, crisp whites at the Seppeltsfield Winery Cellar Door, accompanied by a glorious platter of local meats and cheeses and eaten under the watchful eye of a hungry kookaburra bird.

After endless miles of Roman-straight almost completely traffic-free roads (delayed only by a freight train with 106 carriages, roughly the length of Surrey), the rolling hills gave way to flat dusty plains and we arrived in Wallaroo to a warm welcome from Margaret.  Later, we were joined by several of the family for a fun night at the local Hotel/Pub for generous Aussie suppers and a couple of welcome cold ones.

Back at Margaret’s, Gill shared photos of the expanding UK branch of the family and pieced together the different strands of the Aussie clan on a makeshift family tree.

On Saturday, Margaret took us on a tour to nearby Port Hughes, where she and Bill had built their first home in Australia, as well as to beautiful beaches at Simms Cove and Moonta Bay. Then more family meetings in Kadina and Moonta in a whirlwind version of Who Do You Think You Are?

Huge thanks to Margaret for her amazing hospitality towards a couple of strange Poms, and for the rest of the family in making us so welcome. A great, if brief, road trip that hopefully means Gill and her Aussie rellies will be just that little bit closer, emotionally if not physically.