Vicky Newham


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A Blonde Bengali Wife by Anne Hamilton – a review

This book appealed to me as I am interested in Bangladesh. Based on the author’s experiences during a three-month stay as part of a voluntary cultural exchange programme, A Blonde Bengali Wife was a fabulous way for me to learn more about the country from the point of view of someone who lived and worked there. Prior to reading the book, I had been ploughing through travel guides to Bangladesh and watching videos, and trying to fit what I learnt from these round my own experiences of teaching Bangladeshi students in East London. Anne’s vivid book was an excellent complement, and transported me to the country in a way that a dry travel guide was unable to do. It filled in a lot of gaps for me, and expanded on things which my students had told me about. Given most of my reading is fiction, or text books, this was an absolute delight of a book and a welcome change.

I first read A Blonde Bengali Wife in 2013 when I was researching Bangladesh for an MA project. I read the re-published version in November 2015. On both occasions, what struck me was how much the pages are imbued with affection for the country and the Bengali people. Anne’s gentle humour tickles the narrative, and I shared her perplexity and frustration at many of the things she encountered. Some of the scenes had me snorting with laughter, for example, the visit to Imran and Sajid’s mother, the indomitable Mrs Begum, the bartering scenes, the dreadful phone lines, and the numerous declarations of love which started at the airport as soon as Anne arrived.

The cultural exchange programme involves Anne learning about and helping the Bangladeshi people, and travelling and undertaking a range of activities and projects for and with them. On many occasions I felt as if I were on the exchange with her, on the rammed, air-conditioned buses and crazy rickshaws, smelling the dry river bed and flora, eating yet more rice, lentils and eggs, and hearing the birds and local fauna. Anne travels to the capital, Dhaka, and Sylhet, and their surrounding areas. Her weeks shift between tea gardens in Sylhet, health projects in remote villages, the beach and sprawling urban centres. One of the projects involves levelling a school playing field. Then Anne is helping out in eye clinics and those for babies, sleeping on a mattress in a tiny room with men and using washing facilities which would have made me resort to wet wipes. I loved the scenes when she was putting together a sparkly outfit for a formal Bangladeshi wedding. It was fascinating to learn about the multiple phases of these weddings. I have taught Bangladeshi students about relationships and marriage as part of A-level Psychology, and while we explored cultural differences in these, I knew that various ceremonies were involved, but not that they take place over many days. The wonderful, turmeric ceremony seems steeped in history and symbolism. I also really enjoyed the sections based in Old Dhaka. The extremely atmospheric descriptions had me googling images, so keen was I to see it represented graphically.

I really liked Anne’s Australian friend, Christine, who is down to earth and practical. She and Anne made a good partnership and their friendship provided a buffering for Anne while she found her feet, but I felt we learnt more about Anne after Christine left. This isn’t a criticism at all, as Anne is describing what happened. I always like those friendships that we all make when we are away from home and undergoing something challenging. I also really liked Anne’s local companions, ‘tour guides’ and protectors, Hasina and Munnu, whose loyalty and concern were very touching.

For me, the book is part memoir and part travelogue … and much more. While it is one which inspired her to set up the charity, Bhola’s Children, and is thought provoking, it isn’t a book which is trying to make you give to charity, or make you feel guilty about poverty, disease and inequality. One of the quotes about the book is that “A Blonde Bengali Wife shows the lives beyond the poverty, monsoons, and diarrhoea” and I think this is extremely accurate. Anne refers repeatedly to what stuck out for her: the people. The shared moments, the sad and funny occurrences, the small things Anne had in common with those she met, were all poignant. For me, they emphasised how cultures may vary but how so many aspects of human experience are universal. What’s clear is that life will never be the same for Anne after this exchange.

If you are looking for a read which is a bit different, which is vivid and transporting, I highly recommend A Blonde Bengali Wife. It made me want to go to the airport and get on the first plane to Bangladesh. Who’s coming?

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Vicky Newham © 2015

 


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Before It’s Too Late by Jane Isaac – a review

Having recently finished and enjoyed The Truth Will Out, I have been looking forward to reading Isaac’s new novel, Before It’s Too Late, a police procedural set in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Following an argument with her British boyfriend, Tom, Chinese student Min Li storms out of the pub in a temper and never makes it home. Somewhere along her route, she is abducted and held captive in a dark pit. With only basic provisions, Min Li is at the mercy of her captor.

Part of what makes the book interesting but also harrowing is that the reader gets a first person account from Min Li of her experience in the pit. As she struggles to stay alive, she reflects on her life. Her thoughts turn to her parents and how her boyfriend might be feeling, and she tries to fend off the dawning realisation that she may die. Isaac handles these sections extremely well and it is hard for the reader not to root for Min Li. When a book plot focuses around a kidnap, the writer has to decide whether to have that aspect occur off the page or on. I thought the first person sections were very emotive but they did mean that I knew Min Li was still alive. That said, Isaac has a gift for pulling the reader into the story and involving him/her in what unfolds and there are plenty of surprises.

DI Will Jackman is put in charge of the investigation. With every passing hour, he knows that the chances are receding of finding Min Li alive. I really liked Jackman, and it was refreshing to encounter a detective who isn’t stereotypically alcohol-dependent and lacking in relationship skills. He has challenges of his own, and the readers sees him juggling work, home life and childcare, and trying to come to terms with the personal tragedy which is at the root of these. His character seems human and real and I felt sympathetic towards him as a result. In addition, he comes across as dedicated and capable, and determined to locate the student and find out what the kidnap is motivated by.

In additions to chapters from the viewpoint of Min Li and Jackman, the author also includes ones from the perspective of the captor, and these are simultaneously fascinating and chilling. I found the story extremely interesting, and, as with Isaac’s previous novel, it has a dark plot which taps into contemporary issues in society and possibly real life events. Having recently listened to a few episodes of Serial, Before It’s Too Late reminded me slightly of the real life disappearance of Hae Min Lee in Baltimore, USA in 1999. This isn’t a criticism at all and it may be a coincidence, and in any event, I enjoy stories which use a real event as a starting point for something fictionalised. I know a little about Chinese culture from teaching psychology, and it was thought provoking to consider the ways in which the family dynamics affect how Min Lee’s parents in China respond to her disappearance. Their reaction is tradition-bound, and highlights significant cultural differences in family systems, norms and attitudes between western and non-western societies.

Overall, Before It’s Too Late is a compelling read, with a great plot and a rounded, likeable male detective. I look forward to finding out what is next for Jackman.

My copy was obtained from NetGalley.

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Vicky Newham © 2015


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Whit Lit 2014 – what a way to start!

This weekend saw the inaugural Whitstable Literary Festival – or Whit Lit, as it has been affectionately called. And, wow, what a way to start a festival! It’s been a long time in the planning stages, in the capable hands of Victoria Falconer as Festival Director, Marnie Summerfield Smith and their team.

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I can’t comment on the specifics of the whole festival, only the events I attended. What I can say though on a general level is that the buzz around Whit Lit has been incredible. The Horsebridge Centre on the weekend was packed with people attending events, and chatting excitedly on the stairs about what they’d been to or were on their way to. In my Psychology class this morning, before we got stuck into attachment theory, my students were all talking about the wonderful variety of events and how well attended they’d been.

I attended four public events in total. On Friday I went to How to Get Published with two literary agents, Julia Churchill and Joanna Swainson. I knew of both agents from Twitter, and was interested in meeting Joanna as I’d read that she represents various genres of writing and likes crime fiction. I went to a similar talk at the London Book Fair 2013 and so some of the information I knew already but it was an excellent, informative session. I wrote down in my notepad yet again how much of a ‘company’, multi-department decision it is now to publish a book, rather than it being about what an editor likes. I definitely think that an agent is essential in the current publishing climate with ever new forms of rights and royalties requiring negotiation. Julia covered what an agent does and Joanna talked about the submission process.

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I was lucky to be invited to the launch drinks on Friday evening in the Somerset Maugham gallery. The atmosphere here was wonderful. Everyone I spoke to was so enthusiastic about the event and full of appreciation and admiration for Victoria and her team for making the festival happen.

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On Saturday I was at the Transformers panel, with DE Meredith, Wendy Wallace and Lloyd Shepherd, and Andrew McGuiness as chair.

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All three write historical fiction, with Denise and Lloyd doing historical crime fiction. My interest was partially in the crime writing side but also in some of the characteristics and scientific developments of the Regency and Victorian eras which provide the backdrop for all their novels. Funnily enough, the one book I bought wasn’t one of the crime novels. It was Wendy Wallace’s The Painted Bridge. I’d looked up Wendy’s books before the talk and had seen that this book was set in a private asylum for women. As a psychologist this captured my imagination. When Wendy referred to the book as being about ‘woman becoming’ it clinched my purchase.

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The three authors each read an excerpt from their books, and described how they perceive their work. They also talked about how they came to start writing and how they approach their novel-writing. Denise talked about the morally driven murders of The Devil’s Ribbon and, this, and its Irish setting, made me add it to my wish list. All three of them came across as really lovely people and I could have listened to them for hours. During questions, I asked the panel whether they plotted their books before writing and it was fascinating to hear how different they all were.

In the evening it was the turn of the Great British Gothic (film) with the Barry Forshaw and Christopher Fowler.

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I’ve seen Barry at other events and his knowledge always comes across as encyclopaedic. This was a whistle stop tour through early gothic, with its camp sensibilities, and Hammer films, Frankenstein and the vampire movies. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were discussed, also Deborah Carr and Laurence Olivier. Barry mentioned how sex and violence have been linked for decades in films, and how Peter Cushing always played amoral characters. I asked whether films have mixed genres in the way that commercial fiction is increasingly doing. Barry said that genres have to cross-fertilise to survive. I also asked whether technological advances and special effects have enhanced storytelling or sidelined it, and whether storytelling is as important in film as in fiction. They both agreed that the story is key. Phew. Christopher cited Jason and the Argonauts as an example of a film with a great story and fabulous computer generated effects. What was wonderful about this event was that Barry and Christopher clearly share a passion for film, and enjoy talking to each other, as is evident in my photograph of the two of them sharing a joke. I forced myself to choose between Barry’s book on the Gothic film and his one on British Crime films. I opted for this one, as it relates to an essay I’m doing for my MA, on feminist theory and crime drama.

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My final event, on Sunday evening, was John Gordon Sinclair – the actor turned crime writer – talking to Andrew McGuiness. John was very funny, and came across as candid, full of insight and passionate about his writing. He said that writing gives him control over what he creates in a way that acting doesn’t, but that when a story comes to mind he sees it as a film in his mind and often acts out scenes in his hut at home at the bottom of the garden (which has a sofa and a fridge, drool). I found it fascinating to hear John discuss some of the themes in his novels and how he likes to explore phenomena, places and experiences which are new to him. His themes include: differing reasons for violence; how our past affects who we become; love; what he calls ‘dark politics’; collusion.

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From the brief conversations I’ve had with people about some of the other Whit Lit events, I gather they were a roaring success. Whitstable is definitely a suitable place for a literary festival. With its abundance of creatives and pretty seaside location, I am just surprised that one hasn’t been going here for years. Well, that has been rectified now and I have a feeling that Whit Lit will go from strength to strength. I, for one, will be happy to help out with next year’s and will be buying the full pass rather than individual tickets. As ever at these events, I met in person a number of people whom I ‘know’ from Twitter. In this case it was several fellow Whistabubblians. Aw.

Vicky Newham © 2014