Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, translated by Daisy Rockwell (Tilted Axis, £12)
“Think of a story as a living being,” writes Geetanjali Shree in his International Booker-winning novel, a 735-page epic whose stories twist, bend and intertwine without “needing a single flow.” . At its center is Amma, ‘an old lady approaching eighty’ from northern India who has lost control of life after her husband’s death, ‘as if dad was her only reason for living’. .
But this story carries his depression and despair lightly, told in a cheerful flow of language (“It’s not just hee hee ha ha it’s hoo ha, it’s brouhaha”) and with many twists. The main story, of Amma and her reaction to widowhood, is divided into three parts. In the first, Amma refuses the pleas of her son Bade, her daughter Beti and her grandson Sid to get up. Then she disappears: “Poof, she disappeared into thin air. When she reappears, looking sick and changed, “unrelated”, the second part of the story begins as Amma moves in with Beti, who becomes her own mother’s mother figure.
Amma and Beti are at the center of the story, but other characters come and go, including Rosie Bua, a hijrah (transgender woman), which represents one aspect of the book’s concern with the fluidity of boundaries. Rosie takes care of Amma when she falls and is taken to the hospital. “It was nothing, my children forced me to go.” And a literal border is the setting for the final part of the story as Amma and Beti cross the border into Pakistan, where the pain of the partition of India in 1947 is still fresh. “A border, sir, is for crossing,” Amma tells government officials, but finds herself caught up in political negotiations between the two countries.
A summary like this cannot sum up the boundless – and borderless – energy of Tomb of Sand. Even when it comes to death, it’s full of life, peopled and talkative, with as many branches and tributaries as a river meandering through the country: everyone speaks there, including the local crows. That such an approach would not please all readers is pre-empted by Shree (“Why waste this story’s precious time?”), and it is true that when you are hundreds of pages with hundreds still to go, l he assurance that “no story is ever complete” and “the story will never end” may seem as much a warning as a promise.
However, it’s impossible not to be charmed by the digressions, on everything from hiccuping cricketers to the likeness of the human brain to a Jalebi (“the most royal of sweets”). A riff on time describes him as “the great one-upsman. Whatever you say, time insists on overcoming you. You might say, Oh, what a horrible time it is! and then it will go ahead and make things even more horrible. Translator Daisy Rockwell deserves the same rating the International Booker gives for translating the novel’s idiosyncratic style with such fluidity and energy.
Families, we are told, are like the great Indian epic Mahabharata: “they contain everything that exists in the world, and what they do not contain does not exist”. The same could be said for this voluminous and mind-blowing book.
Standing Heavy by GauZ’, translated by Frank Wynne (MacLehose, £12)
This inventive and very funny first novel offers a dazzling and dazzling overview of Franco-African history through the eyes of undocumented Ivorians, employed as security guards in a Parisian shopping center. The title refers to “those professions which oblige the employee to remain standing to earn a pittance”. Through the stories of a president victim of a “coup d’étatgie” and the oil shock of the 1970s, we meet generations of black immigrants – André, Ferdinand, Ossiri, Kassoum – and hear their points of view on capitalism and slavery, and the repeated urge to “send money back to the old country”. Between chapters, a lively and cynical guide to consumer culture explains how the English and French pronounce Sephora differently and the horrors of having to listen to the same terrible songs over and over again on the mall radio. “A curse on David Guetta and the Black Eyed Peas.”
Dogs of Summer by Andrea Abreu, translated by Julia Sanches (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99)
Spanish novelist Andrea Abreu makes her English translation debut with this story of friendship between teenage girls in Tenerife in the 1990s, told by the unforgettable name of Shit. Her best friend is Isora, and it’s no surprise that Shit’s close affection for her, which turns into jealousy (“I loved her eyes and a bunch of other stuff too”), hides some other feelings. Isora has her own problems to deal with: she “vomits” a lot, “like a cat”, and wants to kill herself – as her mother did. When all this unfinished emotional business, as sweltering as the summer weather, comes to a head, tragedy is inevitable. In playful language, Abreu beautifully evokes a land of “light stored away for so many thousands of years”, and an era of telenovelas and the birth of the internet, in which Pokémon and Bratz dolls give way to sexual discovery. .
Impossible by Erri De Luca, translated by NS Thompson (Mountain Leopard, £14.99)
Themes of betrayal and revenge are explored through an interrogation: the anonymous suspect has been arrested, accused of pushing a man to death while hiking in the Dolomites. His protestations that his presence was a coincidence ring hollow when it is learned that he has a past as a “full-time activist”, and that the deceased once spoke out on him. Detained in solitary confinement, he writes letters to his lover, but he remains alone: the letters are not sent and he trusts no one, not even his lawyer. The magistrate and the suspect clash, but some questions remain unanswered, and their exchange becomes more and more political and thoughtful, passing through Pascal, Leonardo Sciascia and Pink Floyd, as well as the problems of criminals as celebrities and the “brotherhood” of communism. But as philosophical as it gets, De Luca’s sense of storytelling means it’s not above a twist — or two — in the tail.