As part of the Literary Challenge 2017, this time Hillingdon Libraries staff review books written by Asian or Black authors. How much do these authors’ backgrounds influence their works? Is being Asian or Black relevant to their writing?
We read and review fiction books on a set theme every month, for you.
1. Swing Time by Zadie Smith
‘Swing Time’ is the story of two mixed race girls growing up on estates in NW London who meet at dancing classes and become friends. The book moves backwards and forwards between London and West Africa, where tourists travel back to find their roots. One of the girls, Tracey, goes to a performing arts school and then gets a small part in a West End musical. The other, the narrator (who is never named), gets a job with a celebrity, Aimee, who was a pop-star sensation idolised by the girls when they were growing up. Aimee decides to build a school in West Africa and on one visit to the school decides impulsively to adopt a 3 day old baby (is this sounding like anyone you’ve heard of?)! This is a complicated and wide-ranging novel of a friendship. Zadie Smith is a wonderful writer but I enjoyed an earlier book, ‘On Beauty’, more than this.
4 out of 5 stars. Carol – Northwood Library
2. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
I have read this novel as part of the Hillingdon Libraries LGBT reading group. I loved it, but I found its atmosphere too oppressive at times, just as the room in title. The story is mostly set in a less than glamorous Paris, where an American man meets a group of men, each with his own burden and tragedy. He then enters a troubled relationship with an Italian waiter, Giovanni. The author is able to write about beautiful moments of love, then to drag the reader deep into claustrophobic scenes. Despite the general tone, there are occasional moments of comedy and even camp. James Baldwin was very good at playing with stereotypes and identities. Being black and homosexual allowed him to see things in a distinctive way, a point of view that not many talented writers have. ‘Giovanni’s Room’ is a remarkable work, but I probably will not read it again.
4 out of 5 stars. Federico – Northwood Library
3. A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul
‘A Bend in the River’ deals with different ethnic groups uneasily interacting in an unnamed African country. Salim, the narrator, associates mainly with other Asians and regards black Africans with caution and white Europeans with reverent bewilderment. As a member of an ethnic minority without the benefit of recently relinquished colonial power, he and his community lead an insecure existence as insular outsiders. It’s a little disturbing to find black Africans treated with a mixture of suspicion and disdain, in contrast to the evident (though not uncritical) attraction to whites. In the case of the professor’s much younger wife, Salim carries this to the extent of an affair. His shop expropriated and given to an African, Salim ends the affair and leaves the country. While gripping in narrative, the novel seems deliberately inconclusive.
3 out of 5 stars. Mike – Eastcote Library
Have you read any of these books? What are your favourite novels by Asian or Black authors? You can borrow all these books from our catalogue. Thanks for reading!