Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera

I’ve been reading a lot of books on culture and racism recently. The thing that surprises me the most is how much I still don’t know; in every book I’ve learned something that feels like a slap in the face with a wet haddock: something you know you’ll experience one day, and that you won’t enjoy it.

Sanghera’s book takes a slightly different approach to the likes of Caste as it focuses on the Asian experience, and is similar to Natives as it takes a long, hard, painful look at the British Empire and its contribution to the divisions we see in society today.

It’s a broad-ranging piece of writing too, covering the author’s own experiences growing up, but focussing mainly on the hidden history of Britain’s time in India and China, and its treatment of the population.

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Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

This is an odd one, and when I started I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy it. The book’s written as a collection of interviews, messages and conversations in Chinese restaurants. It begins with the discovery of an ancient alien weapon that’s been disassembled and buried in different locations across the globe. From discovery, we move quickly to assembly, but the trouble starts when the scientists and military try to make it work. …

Now, I’ve read a couple of books like this, and I haven’t always enjoyed them. Unless you can do it well, then comes across as a bit of a cop-out. Unless you can do it well, then it gets pretty tedious very quickly.

Luckily, the writer pretty much nails it. The whole book is dialogue basically, and it’s written so well that the scenes are set, the relationships defined and the suspense is … er … suspensed, all through these snippets of conversation. The characters are mostly believable, though I did feel that sometimes their behaviour came out of the blue, which demonstrates the problem with this kind of writing: because you’re getting parts of the story, you get the feeling that something’s developing in the background you might be missing. For example, I didn’t pick up that one one player had built such strong feelings for another he’d be driven to do something hideously out of character.

Still, the whole book shows great imagination and attention to detail, which makes it, like all good speculative fiction, strangely believable. A great combination of a quick read and an intensely readable page turner.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

I was starting to worry I’d never read another book I loved as much as Silk. I was telling a good friend about it; they listened, they nodded, and after the Zoom call ended, a gift pinged on the iPad: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid.

In a surprisingly low word count, Exit West takes carries us on a stream of consciousness that begins in an unnamed city devastated by civil war, and continues around the world. It’s hard to lump this into any particular genre: definitely literary fiction, with a magical realism element that blends so perfectly that you hardly notice it’s there.

It’s one of the most beautifully crafted books I’ve ever come across; long, flowing poetic sentences that start in a character’s head then spill out into a world coming to terms with itself becoming much much smaller.

Weirdly though, there isn’t much dialogue; the writer relies on the dizzying prose to create the action, build the tension, explore the characters … and even without dialogue the richness of the characters is something I haven’t seen since … well … Silk.

A masterpiece of magical realism that’s well worth reading.