After spending March in the company of some edgy short stories and classic dystopia, I was really in need of some lighter reading this month. Though in hindsight, I’m not sure whether a story of colonial brutalism, a commentary on race in modern America and a comprehensive history of the entire civilised world could really be considered “light”…
The Lieutenant, Kate GrenvilleWhen I was searching for an Australian author as part of my Booktrotting project, one of the names that so frequently came up was Kate Grenville—in fact, so frequently recommended was she that even though I plumped for Tim Winton in the end, I just couldn’t resist buying one of her novels as well to read on the side.
The Lieutenant may not be as familiar as Grenville’s Man Booker-shortlisted The Secret River, but it is cut from similar historical cloth, travelling back to Australia’s earliest days as a British penal colony. Based on actual events, it’s the story of Daniel Rooke, a British naval lieutenant among the First Fleet sent to establish the New South Wales settlement, and of his and his fellow Europeans’ tense relations with their new aboriginal neighbours.
I can’t say I was particularly swept up by The Lieutenant, but reading it did make me want to go out and find Grenville’s other historical novels. I really enjoyed the subtle way she tackles Britain’s dark colonial legacy, using an almost comic juxtaposition of the British settlers’ military pomp with some superb descriptions of Australia’s wild, natural backdrop, to really drive home just how intrusively out-of-place the colonialists were—if that’s any sign of things to come, I look forward to The Secret River and its sequel, Sarah Thornhill.
The Sellout, Paul BeattyWhen the crime-ridden L.A. suburb of Dickens is removed from the map to save California from embarrassment, one resident takes it upon himself to restore the pride of Dickens’ exclusively black-and-Latino population—his method of choice being to reinstate Jim Crow-era segregation, in the hopes that it unites the community as “apartheid united black South Africa”.
It feels like a pretty weak statement to call this an astonishing novel; after all, winning the 2016 Man Booker Prize should be proof enough that Paul Beatty’s work is something special. But even amongst Man Booker winners, The Sellout is something else. It’s one of those novels that by luck or design so perfectly fits the zeitgeist into which it emerges—taking aim at both so-called post-racial America and the very idea that such an America could even exist, Beatty conducts a satirical masterclass that’s so cut-to-the-bone funny it makes you wish it wasn’t. “This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man,” the opening line reads, “but I’ve never stolen anything.”
Admittedly, its plot isn’t the most compelling, and runs at times into baffling farce; but in the end, the events of The Sellout are hardly as important as what Beatty uses them to illustrate. If this doesn’t enter the roll-call of Great American Novels in the coming years, I will eat my copy in protest.
Generally speaking, any history book is good enough for me, but The Silk Roads has one hell of a unique selling point. Its scope is enormous—say, every major global event from the rise of Rome to the last days of the Obama administration—and rather than just repeating your old school history lessons, Frankopan swings away from the usual Euro-American perspective and refocuses on the lands of the historic Silk Roads, the trade routes through Asia and the Middle East that were once the centre of the world.
The result is a book as ambitious as it is rewarding, one that presents the historical events we think we know so well from fascinatingly different angles. If there is any one criticism I have of The Silk Roads, it’s that towards the end Frankopan’s lens was pulling noticeably back towards the West; but I think given the intention and the size of the undertaking, that’s easily forgiven.