This Census-taker by China Mieville

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Streatham Library Reading Group met on 7th September to discuss This Census-taker by China Mieville. The book is set in a dystopian world and centers around a nine year old boy and his life as an ‘uphiller’. The story starts with the young boy running down the hill screaming that his mother had killed his father. But in his confusion he is unsure who killed who. And so we are introduced to the main protagonist whose narration switches between the nine year old boy, his adult self and from the first, second to third person. The boy lives in fear of his father who seems to kill at random. His father is a key-maker for the those who ask for them. We are left to decide for ourselves what the keys are for. There were many ideas floated around at the group. Some suspected the occult, others to help unlock emotions or something more tangible, or possibly keys to a parallel universe. Ben (a newcomer to the group) revealed that Mieville had inserted a few clues to who the census-taker was or wasn’t;  the hidden clues were a big surprise to me and I think several others. So the book moves at apace with a constant feeling of foreboding and desperation for the life of the young boy. The book isn’t overtly frightening but the psychological trauma felt by the child is clear and ever present. He lives in isolation and seems to spend his time watching the countryside around him and to keep out of his father’s way. I loved this book but there were many in the group who didn’t. We had comments such as ‘pretenscious’, ‘too patchy, difficult to get into’, ‘I only read the first 25 pages then threw it down in disgust’, oh dear. We tallied up our scores and it got 4.5/10.

 

The Swimming Pool by Louise Candlish

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Swimming poolThis psychological thriller is set in a heatwave in a suburb of London and the story is told from Natalie’s viewpoint.  Natalie is married to Ed, they are both teachers and they have a 13 year old daughter Molly who has suffered with aquaphobia since an accident as a child.

The story revolves around a swimming pool, Elm Hill Lido which has recently been restored and re-opened – a cause championed by Lara Channing, a beautiful rich and glamorous failed actress who has recently moved into the area.

It’s hot, it’s summer and Natalie starts attending the pool and is befriended by Lara and welcomed into Lara’s circle of friends.   Soon Natalie is spending her days with her new friends, not only at the pool, but also at events organized by Lara.  This leads to tension in Natalie’s marriage and between Natalie and her original friends.

Water is a dominant theme throughout the book whether it’s to do with the Lido or Molly’s aquaphobia, something that Natalie feels responsible for.   Whilst a swimming pool (and the life of an actress) can conjurer up thoughts of glamour and decadence it is also a place of danger and this is played and built upon throughout the book.

The prologue is intriguing, there is a secret in Natalie’s past that her husband is unaware of and Natalie is constantly fearful that her past will catch up with her, and it does.  There is also something sinister and suspicious about the friendship between Natalie and Lara and the way in which Lara and her friends start to dominate Natalie’s life.  There are various twists and turns throughout the book and a surprising, and therefore unexpected, twist at the end.

There are a lot of things about this book which should make it a page turner and yet it was not well received by the reading group.  The story swung repeatedly between different time-frames which was distracting and at times confusing, the characters were not likeable and there were large parts of the book which were slow and plodding.

Had it not been a recommended read for the book club a number of us would have given up half way through.  It scored between 5 and 7 the latter higher score purely based on the unexpected twist at the end.

Reviewed by Clapham Library Crime and Thriller reading group – July 2016

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa

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Giselle from Brixton’s Radical Readers Group reviews King Leopold’s Ghost

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild is the story of Kind Leopold’s ‘Congo Free State’. A unique colony in its own right which did not follow the usual recipe of colonial structures and was rather, the Belgian King’s very own personal property from 1885 -1908.

The people of the Congo Free State, as the Democratic Republic of the Congo was known then, suffered great atrocities to keep the ‘King Incorporated’s project profitable. It is estimated that between 10 and 23 million people died during his reign of the Congo Free State.

King Leopold never understood why the Belgian state did not yearn to colonize other nations, like other European powers at the time. He took it upon himself, with the help of many African explores, to claim the territory as his own personal colony, under the auspices of humanitarian intentions. Resource extraction was his main interest, forest and mineral resources where grabbed to the maximum, with entire villages decimated. The real prize was rubber which was going to supply Europe’s insatiable demand for the booming tyre industry.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is how King Leopold managed to secure European consent for his personal colony. In orchestrating the Treaty of Berlin in 1884, from behind the scenes, the King managed to see that the African continent was carved up amongst European powers, delineating borders randomly across different ethnic groups to the interest of Europe; something which is very much an underlying cause of many African conflicts today. No Africans were present at this conference and European powers, such as England, France, Portugal and Germany, got to claim their territories and approve Leopold’s own personal share of the pie.

The plight of the ‘Congo Free State’ became known to the world through various travellers and religious figures who witnessed it first hand and were appalled at what they were seeing. Eventually dark tales of murder, deceit, corruption and maiming started to reach Europe. This resulted in what has been deemed the first international human rights movement of the 20th century. The magnitude of the atrocities to meet rubber quotas, included cutting the hands off of peasants who did not bring their allotted share. At no point did the nation state of Belgium become responsible for the affairs taking place in the Congo, until public pressure had mounted so high the King had to officially hand over his toy to the Belgian state, who continued the expropriation and extraction of natural resources to their own gain.

The book illustrates in great detail what happened in the ‘Congo Free State’ and outlines more generally the ‘scramble for Africa’ incited by King Leopold himself. Until the 1880s’ tropical Africa was not a settler’s colony, as malaria impeded most Europeans from surviving there for long periods of time. It was not until the discovery of quinine that European settlers were able to live in tropical Africa, which changed the continent forever. This coincided with Leopold’s ventures and he was able to ensure that Europeans were in country to see to the success of his project.

The author laments not having more Congolese voices in his book, but this is a product of the lack of records on the African perspective at the time. It is a great book for those who would like to know the root causes of many of Africa’s struggles today.  It captures the linkages between resource extraction, profiteering and greed and the impacts it has on human rights, something which we are still, unfortunately, struggling with today. It is the sad story of a country and a continent which has been pillaged and concertedly underdeveloped for the benefit of ‘others’. In this sense, it is a quintessential snapshot of the implications of colonial abuses, the results of which still bind many African countries today.

 

 

The Lost Child by Caryl Phillips

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Carnegie Library Reading Group read this book over Christmas and new year. We met in the second week of January so we all had plenty of time to ponder over it. It is written by Caryl Phillips and covers themes such as alienation, family splits, mental illness, education, hopes and despair. The book’s primary character, Monica is probably one of the saddest and most desperate women I’ve read of recently. She is disowned by her father (not a spoiler!), has a disinterested husband and two children who she clearly loves but is unable to cope with. We watch her growing more and more hopeless as she loses her children, her job, her home and finally herself. To add to this misery her sons also lose their way as they are fostered out and then taken back by their mother. I’d rather not say anymore so I don’t spoil it for anyone intending to read it. Oddly the first and last chapter centers around the early life of Heathcliffe, with a chapter in the middle about the Bronte sisters. If you are familiar with Wuthering Heights you may pick up on this but, I confess, I’m not and I didn’t. On discussion many wondered why he had even put these chapters in. It didn’t add to the already harrowing story and may even have confused it. we are first reading about a 7yr old boy in the 18th century then thrown into the middle of the 20th century. Some of the contemporary timelines were a little confusing, and the parts which seemed to warrant more explanation were given only a fleeting reference and then forgotten.

The ‘lost child’ could refer to any number of the characters and we all had different opinions who this might be. There was a real mixture of feelings about this book. Some said ‘miserable, didn’t finish’, and ‘too clever, just tell me the story’ to ‘really enjoyed. I would have given up if it weren’t for the book group’, ‘would recommend. I learnt things about myself’. Overall the book got 2.5/5.