Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang

“Languages aren’t just made of words. They’re modes of looking at the world. They’re the keys to civilization. And that’s knowledge worth killing for.”

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution is an fierce indictment against colonialism. Within this superbly written slow-burner of a bildungsroman, R.F. Kuang presents her readers with an extensive critique of eurocentrism, scientific racism, white supremacy, elitist institutions and the hoarding of knowledge, and British imperialism that is by turns didactic and impassioned. If you are a reader who isn’t particularly into nonfiction but you are keen on familiarizing yourself with discourses on colonialism, decolonization, and postcolonialism, or are interested in linguistics (translation, interpretation, language contact), or learning more about the circumstances that led to the First Opium War, you should definitely consider picking Babel up.

Babel is a rare example of how—in the right hands—telling can be just as effective a storytelling method as ‘showing’. Kuang’s storytelling is quite frankly superb. And not only is the narration immersive and encompassing, but it is also informative and thought-provoking. Undoubtedly readers will feel angry by what they will read, and the unrelenting racism, discrimination, physical and emotional violence experienced by the story’s protagonist, Robin. This is a decidedly heavy-going story. And yet, thanks to Kuang’s bravura display of storytelling, readers will find themselves persevering, despite the foreshadowing that presages worse is to come…

The majority of the novel takes place in an alternate 1830s Oxford where Babel, the University’s Royal Institute of Translation, is the ‘pioneering’ centre of translation and ‘silver-working’, an act that catches what is lost in translation and manifests it into being. After cholera decimated his family, Robin, a boy from Canton, is whisked away from China to London by the imperious Professor Lovell, who happens to be a renowned professor at Babel. Robin has no choice but to follow and obey Professor Lovell’s strict study regimens. Not only does Professor Lovell impose a punitive lifestyle on Robin, forcing him to dedicate his every waking moment to the study and learning of languages, but he devests him of his ‘former’ name and makes him relinquish any remembrances of his former life. Additionally, Professor Lovell subjects Robin to many forms of abuse: from spewing ethnocentric and white supremacist speeches, to physically ‘punishing’ Robin. Growing up in this environment Robin grows to resent his ‘mentor’, and yet, even so he is desperate to belong. Besides his tutors and Professor Lovell, Robin only really interacts with his mentor’s housekeeper, who, despite being the only person to show him any tenderness, is nevertheless complicit in Professor Lovell’s continued abuse of him. Robin’s childhood is not a happy one, in fact, it is not really a childhood at all. The setting combined with the misery of it all brought to mind the work of Charles Dickens. Unlike Dickens’ heroes, Robin is not only disadvantaged by his being an orphan but by not being white, something that ultimately makes him a very un-Dickensian character. Professor Lovell’s oppressive ‘rule’ instils in Robin a sense of fear: while he does have a lot of questions (how did the professor find him? why him? why is he ‘bestowing’ on him such an education? what will await him at babel?) he is weary about disobeying him. Moving to Oxford opens Robin up to a world that is both awe-inspiring and terrible. At Babel he can master languages in even more depth, he can be surrounded by hundreds of years of knowledge, and by (supposedly) like-minded individuals.

“They’d been chosen for privileges they couldn’t have ever imagined, funded by powerful and wealthy men whose motives they did not fully understand, and they were acutely aware these could be lost at any moment. That precariousness made them simultaneously bold and terrified. They had the keys to the kingdom; they did not want to give them”

But even Babel has its own set of hierarchies, which prioritize whiteness and European cultures and languages. While Babel, unlike other colleges at Oxford, admits a more diverse student body, compared to his white peers, Robin is treated with a mixture of fascination and disdain. The older students seem unwilling to mingle with first-years so inevitably Robin becomes close to his cohort: Ramy, Victoire, and Letty.
Robin and Ramy become particularly close, and their bond is one of the novel’s strengths. It isn’t a particularly straightforward relationship but their similar experiences and circumstances intensify their kinship. There is a chapter relatively early in the novel that focuses on their early days getting to know each other which was immeasurably bittersweet.

“[This] circle of people he loved so fiercely his chest hurt when he thought about them. A family. He felt a crush of guilt then for loving them, and Oxford, as much as he did. He adored it here; he really did. For all the daily slights he suffered, walking through campus delighted him.”

You feel such relief for Robin to have found someone who just gets what it means to be seen as ‘other’, to be treated as ‘inferior’, ‘un-English’, and to have been deracinated from their homelands and to feel such contrasting emotions at being at Oxford, an institution that upholds racist ideologies. In this ‘alternate’ setting this contrition is even more felt given the role that Babel plays in silver-working and of how silver bars are enabling the British empire to amass even more power and wealth and to further ‘expand’. Robin believes that by staying at Babel, he is surviving. Ramy however is more openly critical of Britain. The duo is later joined by Letty and Victoire, who, being girls are also subjected to discrimination. Like the boys, Victoire, who is Black and was born in Haiti, has an extremely fraught relationship with Babel. Letty, who is white and was born and raised in Britain in a relatively well off family, is in some ways the odd one out. Yet, she seems intent on portraying herself as a victim, in any circumstance really, often referring to her own experience with misogyny to negate Robin, Ramy, and Victoire’s experiences with racism and colonialism. Additionally, her brother died, which Lety, we are both told and shown this, uses to earn her ‘friends’ sympathy. We are meant to hate her, and hate her I did. Imagine the most annoying aspects of Hermione Granger’s character and you have Letty (stubborn, sanctimonious, a stickler for rules). She is a colonialist apologist who, despite being ‘exposed’ to the perspectives/realities of people who have been colonized or have experienced violence at the hands of the British empire, remains firm in her stance (we learn this quite early on so i don’t think it’s that much of a spoiler). I recently came across this quote by Oksana Zabuzhko, a Ukrainian writer, that very much applies to people like Letty: “This is what power really is: the privilege of ignoring anything you might find distasteful.’ Certainly, we can see why at first Robin, Victoire, and Ramy would not oppose Letty’s presence in their group. These opinions have been instilled in her by her upbringing. But, when the months and years go by and Letty’s belief in the British empire remains unwavering…well…her presence in the group didn’t make much sense. I couldn’t fathom why the others would keep her around. I get that she existed to make a point, and sadly I know people like her (who resort to self-victimization whenever confronted with anything resembling criticism, who believe themselves to be ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ but only have empathy for themselves) but I just found her beyond irritating and obnoxious. She has no redeeming qualities. And it annoyed me that she took the center stage in many of the group interactions and took away page-time from characters like Ramy and Victoire. I wish she could have been pushed to the sidelines more, and maybe for her then to take more of a role when sh*t starts going down. But I digress.

At Babel Robin finally learns more about silver bars and dio mio, it isn’t good. He learns just how powerful language can be and has to reconcile himself with the knowledge that he is contributing to the enrichment of the British empire. Robin is approached by a member of a secret organization, Hermes Society, whose aim is to sabotage the silver-working that goes on at Babel and disrupt the status quo. Robin feels at a crossroad, damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. While he does still experience racism and discrimination at Babel, it is there that he can access knowledge that would otherwise not be accessible to him. And, of course, it is there that he was able to meet Ramy and Victoire (i should really include letty because robin does care for her but i cannot bring myself to). Babel also has shielded him away from Professor Lovell, who he now sees only on rare occasions, and given him the kind an opportunity that many others will never have…but that doesn’t make him unaware of how, beneath its ‘enlightened’ veneer, Babel is rotten. Can he help Hermes Society if their acts of sabotage include or result in violence? Is violence inevitable in a revolution? And by choosing not to act does he become a cog that keeps the British empire running?

“He hated this place. He loved it. He resented how it treated him. He still wanted to be a part of it – because it felt so good to be a part of it, to speak to its professors as an intellectual equal, to be in on the great game.”

Robin is torn between his hatred for the British empire and the safety he believes he can only experience at Babel. Kuang renders his inner conflict with painful accuracy and extreme empathy. While other characters may be critical of Robin’s unwillingness to ‘choose’, readers won’t be as ready, and in fact, they will find themselves unable to judge him. He tries to help but inevitably his indecision leads the Hermes Society to decide for him. It is only when Robin is forced to confront the consequences of the opium trade—on China, on the Chinese population, and on the Indian farmers who harvested it—that he finds himself ready to act. But, things do not exactly pan out as the story takes us on a The Secret History kind of detour that will undoubtedly appeal to fans of whydunnits and dark academia. While the atmosphere prior to this event was by no means light-hearted after this happens Kuang ups the tension all the way up. The shifting dynamics within and outside of Robin’s group also change, and not necessarily for the better. And the stakes are just sky-high.

Like the summary says, Babel ‘grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire’. We witness the many forms that power takes, and one of them is in fact language. Language can be in fact a tool of oppression. Kuang’s interrogation of the act of translation is utterly compelling. My mum is a translator and I am bilingual (yet have a foreign accent in both italian & english insert tiny violin here) and have recently started studying two other languages. Suffice to say, whenever I see a book exploring linguistics, I am interested (be it sci-fi like Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan series, literary fiction such as Batuman’s The Idiot, or nonfiction like Lahiri’s In Other Words). And Kuang really presents us with so many interesting facts and insights into translation and untranslatability. Kuang pays incredible attention to words and their various meanings, which truly enriches Robin’s story and his experiences at Babel. Kuang discusses contact-induced change (which sometimes results in language death) and reading about it even feel guilty about having neglected my ‘mother-tongue’ (on a side note: i have noticed that here in england people seem less interested in learning languages as they rely on english being the most widely spoken language worldwide…). While Kuang does acknowledge Morse code, braille and sign language and other nonverbal forms of communication do not really get a mention which is a pity. Nevertheless, Kuang presents us with such nuanced discussions around language and translation, I loved the attention she pays to the etymology of words, double meanings, doublespeak, and the ambiguity of language and interpretation…

“In Classical Chinese, the characters 二心 referred to disloyal or traitorous intentions; literally, they translated as ‘two hearts’. And Robin found himself in the impossible position of loving that which he betrayed, twice.”

Like I said early on, the writing sometimes shifts into a telling mode, so we have swaths of time which are summarized into a few lines, or certain events or arguments are related to us indirectly. But, Kuang storytelling is such that what we are being told feels incredibly vivid and—for the better and worse—immersive. Some of the lectures Robin attends may occasionally seem a bit too long or pedantic, and I wasn’t always keen on the footnotes (more on that later), but I was never bored. Robin is such a compelling narrator and my heart went out to him. This povero ragazzo really can’t catch a break. And when he finds some solace, with Ramy and Victoire, we have Letty to stir things up or spoil the group’s rare moments of contentment. He hates Professor Lowell who is just so f*cking despicable and full of vitriol but also ‘perversely’ wants to earn his approval. He is also burdened by the realization that as the years go by he struggles to recall his mother and his early years in China. Once in England and under Professor Lowell’s ‘tutelage’ Robin feels caught in a constant state of alterity: while the story mentions that there are occasions where he can ‘pass’, he experiences overt racism, disenfranchisement, and microaggressions on the daily. And he isn’t given the tools or words to express this profound sense of injustice and alienation. Ramy and Victoire become his lifelines as he is finally given the chance to try to name the difficult thoughts and feelings he experiences living in a country that sees him and those like him as ‘barbarians’. Speaking of barbarians, I really appreciated how Kuang highlights the irony and hypocrisy of those British people who will claim that the people they are colonizing or waging war against are ‘violent’, ‘savages’, and ‘uncivilized’ and therefore deserving of being colonized, oppressed, and killed.

‘How strange,’ said Ramy. ‘To love the stuff and the language, but to hate the country.’
‘Not as odd as you’d think,’ said Victoire. ‘There are people, after all, and then there are things.’

I found Robin to be such an endearing character. Kuang captures the disorientation of living somewhere where you are and will always be perceived as a perpetual foreigner. His longing for a place to belong to is truly heart-wrenching. He is not flawless but I genuinely believe that he always tries his hardest to do good by others. Sometimes self-preservation kicks in and he finds himself at a standstill. He feels a moral obligation to help the Hermes Society but is not quite ready to be responsible for the destruction of Babel. Yet, when he realizes that he is becoming complicit in the injustices perpetrated by Babel..well, he has to question whether his loyalties can even align with those responsible for maintaining unjust systems of power.

“Yet didn’t he have a right to be happy? He had never felt such warmth in his chest until now, had never looked forward to getting up in the morning as he did now. Babel, his friends, and Oxford – they had unlocked a part of him, a place of sunshine and belonging, that he never thought he’d feel again. The world felt less dark now. He was a child starved of affection, which he now had in abundance – and was it so wrong for him to cling to what he had? He was not ready to commit fully to Hermes. But by God, he would have killed for any of his cohort.”

Ramy, who is more impassioned and outspoken, balances Robin perfectly. Their shared moments together do have certain undercurrents but these remain largely unspoken. And in some ways, it is this elision that made it all the more obvious.
Letty…I have said enough about her. She, similarly to Professor Lovell, remains unchanged throughout the course of the narrative. We know the kind of people they are from the very first and I am afraid that in some ways Letty is worse than Professor Lovell. Her acts of self-dramatization and victim playing drove me up the walls.
Victoire was sadly underused. Her characterization sometimes relied too much on opposing Letty’s one (we will have letty responding in a sh*tty way to something and then we will get a different response from victoire who usually acts as a pacifier). I just would have liked less page-time spent on Letty—who, however believable she is, is neither an interesting nor compelling character—and more on Victoire. In the latter half of the novel, Victoire is given more room to breathe but due to the pace of the plot, the storyline can’t really focus on her.
I liked how many secondary characters come into play in the latter half of the novel and I was surprised by the role some of them play in the story.
Reading about Britain’s ‘past exploits’ is by no means fun. Yet, somehow, Kuang is able to make Robin’s story wholly captivating and hard to put down. The anxiety I felt for him, and later on Ramy and Victoire, made me go through this nearly 500+ pages tome of a book at a relatively fast speed.

There is much to be admired in Babel. There were a few minor things that kept me from giving this a 5 star. At times Kuang could be a bit heavy-handed when elucidating certain points, and part of me wishes she could have trusted her readers more to reach certain conclusions without having our hands held all the way there. Letty, well, she stole too much time away from Robin, Ramy, and Victoire. I would also have loved to see some confirmed queer characters…but alas. While I appreciated that Kuang does take into consideration the experiences of working-class people, without condemning or condoning their behaviour towards our group, there was this one scene where a mob of mill workers are shouting at Babel students and their northern accent is described as ‘rough and incomprehensible’…which…wasn’t great. We already know that they are ‘snarling’ so these descriptors seemed unnecessary and play into existing negative stereotypes about regional accents. Kuang was spot on about British food though…
The tragic denouement also left me feeling rather bereft.

This was intentional no doubt but still despite the inevitability of it all I felt betrayed having become so invested in the story and its characters. But these things are very minor and kind of inconsequential given the scope and the depth of the narrative. Additionally, I really liked the intersectional and dialectical approach Kuang takes in her condemnation and deconstruction of eurocentric and white historical narratives.

“History isn’t a premade tapestry that we’ve got to suffer, a closed world with no exit. We can form it. Make it. We just have to choose to make it.’”

​​The realization that the author is my age makes me feel a mixture of befuddlement and intimidation. I mean, despite a few minor criticisms, this novel is a literary Achievement with a capital A.

‘But what is the opposite of fidelity?’ asked Professor Playfair. He was approaching the end of this dialectic; now he needed only to draw it to a close with a punch. ‘Betrayal. Translation means doing violence upon the original, means warping and distorting it for foreign, unintended eyes. So then where does that leave us? How can we conclude, except by acknowledging that an act of translation is then necessarily always an act of betrayal?’

When I approached this I did so under the impression that it would be something in the vein of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Zen Cho’s Sorcerer Royal Series, and, like I said earlier on, Charles Dickens. And while there were brief instances within Babel where those comparisons rang true, for various reasons and to different degrees I was also reminded of Cornelia Funke, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer and books by Natasha Pulley (letty is for sure a very pulley-like female character). And yes, superficially Babel also carries echoes of a certain series by you-know-who. Babel is also in clear conversation with postcolonial discourses such as ones written by Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of The Earth.
However, make no mistake, Babel is an ultimately unique and imaginative work like no other. Maybe if you expect this to be heavy on the fantasy, like Cho and Clarke’s books are, well, you may find the magical element in Babel to be rather subdued. Despite its fantastical nature the narrative grounds silver-working in realism, and I thought it really fitted the solemn tone of the story. Whereas Cho and Clarke’s proses are bombastic and playful, Babel is more sombre and precise. It is also moving and clever, and Kuang’s commentary is razor-sharp and brilliant.
Both thematically and genre-wise Babel packs a lot. We have a bildungsroman set in an ‘alternate’ 1830s Oxford with the addition of a fantasy element. Through Robin’s story Kuang carries out an unflinching and urgent interrogation of colonialism and colonial resistance, knowledge and power, language and translation, privilege, racial science and systemic racism, xenophobia, ‘otherness’ and alienation, industrialization, gender and class-based discrimination, history and historical revisionism, and much more. Friendship, loyalty, hatred, betrayal, morality, longing and belonging, all of these also come into play in Robin’s gripping story. I would go more into detail about certain plot points or character dynamics but I don’t want to spoil anything…suffice to say there are a lot interesting and fraught character dynamics that add a layer of tension to Robin’s story. Like I said, the boy had my heart, and so did Ramy. I can’t wait to re-read this as I’m sure I was so engrossed by the story and worried about Robin’s wellbeing that I’m sure certain things went over my head.

“The origins of the word anger were tied closely to physical suffering. Anger was first an ‘affliction’, as meant by the Old Icelandic angr, and then a ‘painful, cruel, narrow’state, as meant by the Old English enge, which in turn came from the Latin angor, which meant ‘strangling, anguish, distress’. Anger was a chokehold. Anger did not empower you. It sat on your chest; it squeezed your ribs until you felt trapped, suffocated, out of options. Anger simmered, then exploded. Anger was constriction, and the consequent rage a desperate attempt to breathe. And rage, of course, came from madness.”

TANGENT BELOW:
If you aren’t keen on books that are very much making a point and include several scenes & characters that are there to drive said point home maybe Babel will not hold a lot of appeal to you. But, even so, I would urge you to nevertheless give this one a shot as usually, I am that type of reader, someone who prefers ambiguous storylines & characters and doesn’t like narratives that leave very little room for interpretation…but here it just fits? Yeah, on the one hand, I get that some of these ‘omniscient’ footnotes—which usually clarify misinformation or challenge white historical narratives—may feel a bit patronizing (colonialism & british empire = bad, slavery didn’t magically end overnight with the 1833 abolition act), but, on the other, I realize that scenes and dialogues that seem self-explanatory to some won’t be to other readers.
Kuang’s commentary on colonialism and racism feel necessary and sadly relevant. While she doesn’t label any specific country or community as good or bad she also doesn’t shy away from confronting the many atrocities and injustices perpetuated by the British empire. That Kuang is able to balance such a piercing critique with a compulsive and deeply affecting coming of age tale is awe inspiring.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Midnight at Malabar House by Vaseem Khan

Midnight at Malabar House presents its readers with a fairly promising start to a new sleuthing series. As you may or may not know I am a big fan of whodunnits and golden detective fiction and ever since finishing Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries I have been on the lookout for a historical mystery with a female lead. Midnight at Malabar House starts off in Bombay on New Year’s Eve, 1949. Inspector Persis Wadia, our main character, happens to be India’s first female inspector. Persis is fairly ‘fresh’ on the force and is keen to prove her worth. Yet, her passionate and driven attitude seems to have only antagonized her peers who are quick to dismiss her on the basis of her gender and her age. It just so happens that she’s the first on the scene of Sir James Herriot, a ‘distinguished’ English diplomat. Persis knows that his death is not a result of a robbery gone wrong and is prepared to pursue avenues that might make her a persona non grata in the force as the wealthy and well-connected guests of Herriot’s party are not happy to be seen as suspects. Her superior too seems to show little concern over the apprehension of the true killer, seemingly satisfied with attributing his death to the most convenient and ‘expandable’ person. As Persis investigates Herriot’s not-so-straight-and-narrow affairs and the various members of his household she is forced to reassess her idea of justice. Persis is assisted by Archie Blackfinch, a Scotland Yard criminalist who becomes her unlikely ally.
The aspect I enjoyed the most was the historical setting. Vaseem Khan demonstrates an admirable ability to render specific time periods and places: from his dialogues to the way the characters comport themselves, Khan shows an understanding of the social mores existing in this period of time. Because of this many characters express unsavoury opinions, and Persis is often at the sharp end of these remarks. I appreciated that Persis was portrayed as a very determined individual. Her characterization does fall a bit into the clichèd territory as she’s the ‘green’ young investigator keen to prove herself and the, allegedly, ‘stubborn’ woman in a male-dominated field. Her stubbornness is made out to be her ‘main’ flaw, something that frustrated me a little. At times this aspect of her character was a tad overdone as if the author wanted to stress that she wasn’t a perfect lead and/or to explain how she has ‘made it’ onto the force. It just so happens that before reading this I’d read another male-authored book with a ‘headstrong’ female investigator/agent/whatever and part of me realizes that may very well be realistic but I’d like more complexity in their characterization. The male investigators are battling inner demons/recovering from traumas/clever-yet-super-flawed or whatever else and the women are ‘stubborn’ and ‘spunky’….then again, this is only the first instalment in a series that will probably go on to make Persis into a more rounded character, so I look forward to that (khan, do not disappoint me pls).
The case is fairly engaging and I liked the plot’s momentum. We have red herrings, some false leads, some interesting dialogues with possible suspects etc. Backdropping this investigation are some thought-provoking discussions on the long-lasting consequences of colonialism, the partition, class-based inequalities, and corruption. This landscape of political and social turmoil adds a layer of tension and urgency to Persis’ investigation, and overall I liked the author’s nuanced approach to these topics. I particularly appreciated how he challenges simplistic ‘good/evil’ binaries. Persis does undergo some promising character growth, as she learns that good intentions do not always lead to good outcomes and that her ambition sometimes clouds her judgment. While she does show empathy for others, there are instances where she is so focused on the big picture, in this case, the identity of the killer, that she can come across as callous. There is a hint of a romance subplot which I am not wholly sold on yet…but maybe the follow-up will make said romance a bit more credible.

While this whodunnit doesn’t quite fall into the cozy mystery genre it ultimately had a feel-good vibe to it. It was very rewarding to see Persis challenge the people who oppose her or who proudly & loudly share their misogynistic views. If you are an Agatha Christie fan you should definitely check this one out.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼

Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge

 

 

“I saw my mother raise a man from the dead. It still didn’t help him much, my love, she told me. But I saw her do it all the same. That’s how I knew she was magic.”

 

I was hooked by Libertie’s opening paragraph. Set during and after the American Civil War Kaitlyn Greenidge’s novel is narrated by Libertie the daughter of a Black female doctor. As the child of a free-woman Libertie is born free at a time when slavery was yet to be abolished. But whereas Libertie’s mother, who is a light-skinned woman and was able to study medicine by ‘passing’, Libertie herself is dark-skinned, and because of this experiences both racism and the prejudices of those who are ‘colorstruck’. Cathy, although not a demonstrative mother, clearly cares about Libertie and has trained her since a young age in the medical arts. But, as Libertie discovers, some conditions and or people cannot be cured. When one of her mother’s patients, a man Libertie had grown fond of, fails to recover, Libertie begins to question her mother’s abilities and grows increasingly disillusioned by her profession. Sensing her daughter’s detachment, Cathy enrolls Libertie at Cunningham College in Ohio where she will be the only female medical student. Libertie, who by this point had already begun to chafe against her mother’s expectations, is far more drawn by the music department, and in particular, by the voices of Louisa and Experience, also knows as the Graces.

“Music at night, music after dark, music finding its way to you across sweetgrass, can feel almost like magic.”

Libertie longs to belong to them, but, in spite of her attempts to form a friendship with the Graces, the bond between the two women is impenetrable. Greenidge’s articulates Libertie’s loneliness and yearning with lyric precision. It was easy to understand and sympathize with Libertie, her wish to be free of other people’s visions of who she should be. We also understand how complex her relationship with her mother is: having grown without a father or other relatives Cathy is everything to Libertie.

I found this first half of the novel to be but poignant and engaging. Greenidge does not shy away from discussing the realities of slavery, racism, colorism, or sexism. Yet, her narrative does not dwell on pain and suffering. There are many moments of beauty and empathy, and I found Libertie’s voice to be utterly captivating.

The latter half of the novel is where things get a bit messy. Libertie becomes entangled with Emmanuel, a young man from Haiti. While their first interactions had both chemistry and potential, their romance happens way too fast. Libertie’s feelings toward Emmanuel aren’t clearly addressed, which was weird since up to that point readers were privy to her innermost feelings and or thoughts. And then, bam, all of a sudden Libertie is in Haiti with Emmanuel and things there take a vaguely Jane Eyresque turn.
While the descriptions of Haiti, from its history to its physical landscapes, were vivid, and there were many thought-provoking discussions on religion and culture, I remained unconvinced by Libertie’s motivations to move there. I wish the story had kept its focus on her and Cathy or her and the Graces, as I did not really feel the ‘love’ between her and Emmanuel. Their relationship was rushed and once in Haiti it never truly develops or progresses. His family drama steals the limelight, and although it did allow the narrative to touch upon some compelling issues, I just could not bring myself to believe in Libertie or Emmanuel’s motives. Cathy’s presence is relegated once more to letters that Libertie chooses not answer. The finale was both predictable and left a few too many questions unanswered.

Nevertheless, I truly enjoyed Greenidge’s writing. I found that the inclusion of poetry, music, and fragments from Libertie/Cathy’s letters added a layer of depth to the story.
While I wasn’t blown away by the latter half of the novel nor its conclusion I would still recommend this as it is written in lyrical prose and it presents readers with a nuanced mother-daughter relationship while also delving into America’s history, racism, colorism, sexism, grief, and, as the title and heroine’s name suggest, freedom.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★½

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African Europeans: An Untold History by Olivette Otélé

“The history of African Europeans is vibrant and complex, just as it is brutal.”

Olivette Otélé, who happens to be a professor at my university, is the first black woman in the UK to be appointed to a professorial chair in history. African Europeans is her meticulously researched and illuminating examination of the relationship, past and present, between Europe and Africa. Otélé reveals key figures and connections that have long been overlooked by historians and public discourse. By revealing the lives and experiences of African Europeans throughout the centuries Otélé dispels the popular myth of Europe having an exclusively white historical narrative (which leads many to criticise period/historical dramas that are set in Europe and star non-white characters, claiming that it isn’t ‘historically accurate’).

In the first chapter, ‘Early Encounters: From pioneers to African Romans’, Otélé states the following: “From confrontations to collaborations, the relationship between Africans and Europeans has been tumultuous since the third century”. She discusses figures such as the Queen of Sheba and St Maurice (an Egyptian and leader of the Roman Theban Legion) as well as African-born Romans such as Emperor Septimius Severus (who was born in Leptis Magna ie Libya) and Marcus Cornelius Fronto. who “paved the way for a strong tradition of African European intellectuals”. In the second chapter, ‘Black Mediterraneans: Slavery and the Renaissance’, Otélé touches upon famous names such as Alessandro de Medici to ‘ordinary’ ones such as Ursola, a black slave in a Valencian household, who hoped to “buy her freedom”.
From the Renaissance Otélé moves onto the following centuries, exploring, and challenging, Europe’s shifting perceptions of race and blackness. Otélé also demonstrates the ways in which racism has evolved throughout history.

“From religious artefacts to representations of the magi; from an intellectual in fifteenth-century Granada to the young grime artists of twenty-first-century Britain, African European identities have continuously evolved.”

In the latter half of this book Otélé focuses on more recent history, describing how many European countries refuse to acknowledge systemic racism (as if ‘apologising’ for their colonial pasts absolves them completely) feigning ‘color blindness’. I also really appreciated Otélé’s intersectional approach as she always takes into account the different ways in which one’s gender and sexuality contributes to the way they are treated by and seen by their society.
The lives, experiences, histories Otélé ‘unearths’ are riveting. While Otélé does not pose questions to the reader, the histories she ‘unearths’ are definitely question-inducing. Racism, citizenship, identity, notions of freedom and of belonging all shape the individuals Otélé is writing about.
This is the kind of history book that should become part of the curriculum. Although I did not attend a British school many of my British acquaintances have complained about the lacunae in their studies (especially when it comes to discussing the relationship between Africa and the UK). And I also hope that it will be translated in Italian and many other languages.
I think this an inspiring work that will definitely appeal to those with a ‘history’ background or to history aficionados.
Otélé is a thoughtful yet objective writer and her work demonstrates incredibly acuity and knowledge.

Many many many thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an a copy of this.

 

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

‘You’re gambling. Hell, you’re gambling against history.’

Kindred is a riveting story. Octavia Butler has created a tale in which a young woman is thrust into a violent past that forces her to into a relentlessly dangerous position.
Kindred is an incredibly gripping read. From its prologue to its epilogue, the story demands attention. Butler convincingly depicts deeply complex and believable characters in a unthinkably brutal world.

I had thought my feelings were complicated because he and I had such a strange relationship. But then, slavery of any kind fostered strange relationship.

Butler does not shy away from describing the terrible abuse and violence slaves were forced to endure in the 19th century. Dana herself is initially incapable of comprehending the horror she witnesses during her journeys back in time. Dana’s own resolves and belief are tested beyond measure again and again throughout the course of the book.

Slavery is a long slow process of dulling.

Dana is a very relatable and likable main character. Despite the shock caused by being flung back in time, she does not lose her wits: she faces her situation with as much practicality as possible. She does not waste time panicking deciding instead that the best way of surviving this terrifying experience is to prepare herself as best as she can: first by reading about the period in which she is transported to and then by trying to discern a pattern in the causes of these leaps back in time. Both she and her husband, Kevin, show admirable self-control in a situation in which they have little grasp of.
All of the characters Butler introduces are vividly realistic. Despite the scenario, there are no clear good guys or bad guys. Instead there are characters that could be both cruel and pitiful, kind yet bitter. Their complexity made them all the more believable.

Strangely, they seemed to like him, hold him in contempt, and fear him all at the same time. This confused me because I felt just about the same mixture of emotions for him myself.

Each page of Kindred contains poignant reflections and important examinations on human behaviour/nature. The grave topics it tackles are combined with a constant feeling of dread for Dana’s wellbeing; in fact, Kindred reads with a strong sense of urgency: throughout the story Dana’s life and freedom are constantly at stake.
So despite the graphic portrayal of the unimaginably inhumane and brutal reality slaves experienced, Dana’s willfulness make this journey through this particularly horrifying moment of history much easier to read. The complicated relationship she has make Kindred a deeply complex and well-crafted novel.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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