"The cradle rocks above an abyss... our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness", goes the epigraph to The Book Of Memory.
Taken from Vladimir Nabokov's autobiography Speak, Memory, this quote is an apt opener in more ways than one: Petina Gappah's first novel is in the voice of a Zimbabwean woman named Memory, speaking to readers from the pages of her notebooks.
In the notorious Chikurubi maximum-security prison, she awaits the execution of her death sentence for murder, even as she holds out hope for amnesty as the country gears up for fresh political elections. She writes to fill a Western journalist in on how she landed in jail, but also to make sense of her own past and family history.
Hers is also a touching story about transcending darkness and embracing life, even in the bleakest of circumstances. Life in Chikurubi, without basic sanitation and amenities, can be surprisingly hilarious. Inmates coaching one another what to say at their appeal court hearings end up committing howlers, confusing "in remand" with "in remind", and "time served" with "time saved".
And Memory herself journeys from bitter incomprehension of the seemingly random events that befell her, to a greater understanding of love and grace.
"The story that you have asked me to tell you does not begin with the pitiful ugliness of Lloyd's death," begins Memory, setting in motion a kind of whodunit, as the reader tries to piece together who Lloyd is, what kind of relationship they had and how he died.
THE BOOK OF MEMORY
By Petina Gappah
Faber & Faber/ Hardcover/ 270 pages/$36.90/ Books Kinokuniya
"It begins on a long-ago day in August when the sun seared my blistered face and I was nine years old and my father and mother sold me to a strange man."
A picture of Memory and her early life emerges: neither black nor white in cultural identity, ethnically black but later raised in a white, adoptive household, she is a double outsider. Bookish and well-educated, she is regarded with suspicion by all she meets, due to reasons gradually revealed.
Part of the pleasure - if you can call it that, for the book holds much tragedy and death - of reading The Book Of Memory is in giving in to the meandering nature of Memory's memory, letting her train of thought take you back to her childhood in the former Rhodesia's townships, before surfacing in the tough reality of Chikurubi and its motley crew of prostitutes, conwomen and killers.
Just as human recollection rarely works in a perfect, linear way, Memory's narrative threads in and out of time, omitting key details and occasionally getting things horribly wrong. It is the nature of people's minds to change; to alter the "facts" with the excavation of new evidence.
At times, the novel does feel as though it has taken shortcuts in fleshing out certain chapters in Memory's account: her relationship with Lloyd and a British boyfriend, Simon, for example, could have been elaborated. Yet, these ellipses feel real; in keeping with the unreliability of her memory.
Gappah, a lawyer (based in Geneva, helping developing countries with trade deals, according to a 2009 profile in The Guardian newspaper), has been a writer to note, since she won the Guardian First Book Award in 2009 for her debut collection of short stories, An Elegy For Easterly.
Born in what was then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, she does a fine job of weaving the country's troubled public history into the background of Memory's gripping history.
National turmoil penetrates even the isolation of the prison block, as the guards bring news and rumours of the killing of minority white landowners; as a new Minister of Justice visits to give a speech about human rights and human dignity - an ironic touch on Gappah's part, given Zimbabwe's track record.
The tension between black and white citizens, and between colonial and post-colonial administrations, plays out in details: Don't look a black magistrate in the eyes, advise one inmate; look a white magistrate in the eyes or he'll think you're lying, advises another. Where in Zimbabwe can you find a white magistrate these days?, retorts another.
Ultimately, The Book Of Memory is a powerful attempt at imagining recovery after trauma. Suspended on death row, Memory can be read as a symbol of a land still finding its way through the wounds left by civil unrest and corruption.
"It will not be possible for me to escape the past," she writes, near the end of the book. "But if I go back there, it will only be to find ways to make rich my present."
If you like this, read: Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Ayebia Clarke, 1988, 2004 reprint paperback, $26, Books Kinokuniya). This semi-autobiographical novel about a teenage girl's coming-of-age in 1960s Rhodesia won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize in 1989 and has since become a classic of post-colonial literature.
- Clara Chow
A psychedelic joyride as colourful as its bright cheery cover, The Mark And The Void is a wildly funny satire about the global financial meltdown - author Paul Murray has certainly brought his "A" game to it.
It has been five years since his last novel, the critically acclaimed Skippy Dies (2010), which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.
THE MARK AND THE VOID
By Paul Murray
Hamish Hamilton/ Paperback/ 463 pages/$29.91/ Books Kinokuniya
But the new work's long gestation period is worth it. Murray's mischievous take on a post- financial crash scenario set in Dublin - involving characters as diverse as opulent bankers, novelists, prostitutes, protesters in zombie outfits, Russian mathematics prodigies and shady Eastern European criminals - is an ingenious dark comedy and
"meta" on many levels, all in the name of good fun and does not reek of pretentiousness.
The protagonist is Claude, a caricature of the corporate zombie with his burning desire for anonymity and astounding lack of social awareness.
He finds himself tailed for weeks by a nondescript man decked in all-black, who turns out to be an author supposedly using him, the everyman, as inspiration (or fodder) for a new novel.
This stalker shares the same first name as the author. And the first sentence happens to read: "Idea for a novel: we have a banker rob his own bank."
It is clever how Murray portrays cut-throat investment bankers contriving increasingly bizarre and complicated mathematical models to carry on their dangerous game of derivatives.
He parodies real life in situations such as hapless bankers facing unravelling fraudulent Ponzi schemes, the subsequent cover- up and the endless bailouts by governments of such banks that are deemed "too big to fail", with the monies eventually pocketed by its management in hyper- inflated wages.
In the book, a conservative- minded chief executive officer is sacked from an investment bank, despite having seen it through a global financial crisis without sustaining any major fallout.
In comes a new CEO - himself sacked for running his own bank to the ground - because of the demand for a greater appetite for risk.
He makes his presence felt through cryptic motivational messages, like "think counterintuitive" and "all that glitters is not gold".
Despite the occasionally plodding pace, Murray's deft take on a weighty subject matter means, counter-intuitively, that the novel is a breeze to read.
If you like this, read: Skippy Dies by Paul Murray (Penguin, 2010, $22.48, Books Kinokuniya). The title character dies during a doughnut-eating contest in the book's opening scene. The bittersweet tragicomedy, set in a Catholic boarding school, explores the events leading up to Skippy's death.
- Walter Sim
The theme of hunting appears in epigraphs scattered through the volume. Hunting for stories in dark places is one way to summarise Singapore Literature Prize shortlisted novelist Audrey Chin's collection of nine short stories.
By Audrey Chin
Math Paper Press/ Paperback/ 100 pages/$22/ BooksActually
Much thought has been put into creating fiction that will excite the reader and urge him to turn the page. Most of the stories are populated by unusual characters who are pushed by circumstances into extreme situations; the adjective "unusual" is somewhat of an understatement since several of the protagonists could easily be described as diabolical.
Mining subversive borderlands of the human psyche to drive the narrative forward, the collection bears a strident message about harnessing the power of unsettling tales. It is not insignificant that the first and last stories, A Lover Of Story and Writer's Revenge, invoke the latent violence of writing and the destructive ends that literature could serve.
Chin's prose is often luscious, not unlike the juicy cuts of red meat evoked by the book's title. The metaphor gives an inkling of an abiding interest in appetites. Through the stories, this is manifest in permutations that range from the carnal to the cannibalistic. In some of the stories, the fleshly materiality of key elements leaves a disquieting lasting impression, most notably the Great Dragon Fish with a track record of foretelling winning 4D numbers in the story The Dragon Fish.
Appetite that is whetted and not satiated is also explored through stories about relationships that transcend boundaries of nation or social norms. The chemistry of the most unlikely of couplings is the subject of at least three stories.
"Opposites attract" is tested in a story about a handsome school teacher and a transsexual student. The sense that the author prowls for fleshly tales that will make the reader shift uncomfortably in his chair of preconceived notions about love comes up again and again through the volume.
The writing has a skittish energy about it and often this has the effect of heightening tension. In the more compact stories, there is a sense of images moving lyrically, as if one were watching a music video. In the longer stories, the author draws the reader into the worlds she has created through the compelling voices of characters as is evident in Afterlife and The Dragon Fish.
There is an international cast of characters, a global flavouring given the overarching steak thematic; the transnational texture is further highlighted in the stories that feature characters paired with others of different nationalities.
Chin delves into the dangers of desire for knowledge in stories where cross-cultural relationships are tested by grief and violence. Yet the deepest impressions are made by characters whose innermost dilemmas and troubles pierce through their surface differences, their nameable identities of race, ethnicity, nationality.
In the stories where the author explores emotional bonds and the sexual intimacy in relationships that do not conform to society's expectations, she seems to be underlining the unexpectedness of the relationships, perhaps as a way of challenging the rigidity of conventions. Woven through the collection is fascination with singularities that defy society's categories. The marginalised and the denigrated have desires that make for deliberate baroque flights of fancy.
If you like this, read: The Boat by Nam Le (Canongate Books, 2009, $24.52, Books Kinokuniya), a collection of stories set in places across the globe, with characters who compel the reader to travel into the dark unplumbed regions of the human heart.
- Yeo Wei Wei
The title of this book may be Love + Hate, but it would be more apt to add "and all the shades in between". There is a hotch-potch of stories that vary in tone and style from the essayistic to speculative fiction, the macabre and the romantic, with a good deal of homage to Kafka and Freud thrown into the mix.
LOVE + HATE
By Hanif Kureishi
Faber & Faber/ Paperback/ 217 pages/$28.84/ Books Kinokuniya
As themes, love and hate are not that explicit throughout the collection, but they exist as invisible threads that tie the stories together.
For example, in The Racer, a husband and wife decide to race one another around the block, during the week of their divorce.
It was "the last thing they did together", which can be read as romantic, or perhaps just fitting, as they are too familiar with each other's weaknesses, as only lovers can be.
Also enjoyable are the stories that reference the inter-generational tensions that exist between Kureishi and his father, who had yearned to be a writer but was ultimately unsuccessful, and that between Kureishi and his physically superior sons.
This circle-of-life type of interrogation of the self is apparent in I Am The Future Boy as he invites his youngest son on a run.
As Kureishi is outpaced, he observes poetically: "My fading, and his rising, make life possible."
The collection is uneven, with some essays making for tedious reading, such as His Father's Excrement, a plodding essay that explores the literary classic The Metamorphosis as a manifestation of author Franz Kafka's strained personal relationship with his father.
The stories that do sizzle are those that merge with the more public aspects of Kureishi's personal life.
In Weekends And Forevers, he writes about a man whose desires outstrip his feelings for his wife. The story was originally titled In Praise Of Adultery when it was first published in 2013. Context makes this story come alive - Kureishi's experienced a minor scandal when his 1998 book Intimacy, which details the life of a philandering middle-aged man, mirrored his own separation from his wife.
Kureishi ruffled more feathers last year when he declared that creative writing courses were a waste of time.
In the same year, he wrote Anarchy And The Imagination - it was originally titled What They Don't Teach You At Creative Writing School - a brief but beautiful meditation on why and how artists make art.
The collection ends with the best story of the lot, A Theft: My Con Man.
In it, Kureishi reveals the degree to which he trusts an acquaintance with his life savings and subsequently, after losing it all, how he still chooses to trust and maybe even love the con man.
It is a strange and oddly complex thing to understand, but perhaps one could say the same of his greatest love stories.
If you like this, read: This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz (Riverhead, 2013, $12.84, Books Kinokuniya), a collection of stories about a young Dominican American man and his doomed relationships with women.
- Nabilah Said