The Promise by Damon Galgut won the 2021 Booker Prize. A family saga set in South Africa, it focuses on the Swart family from 1986 to 2018, mirroring the country’s emergence from apartheid to the uncertain promise of the present. It is first and foremost a family saga, set against the backdrop of historical events. We first meet this white Afrikaans family at the funeral of the mother, at their farm outside of Pretoria in apartheid South Africa. Ma has made a promise to a black woman who has served the family her whole life.
The outcome of that promise is the organizing thread of the book. Over 30 years, family members come together only at four funerals. As the family shrinks, the country evolves. The omniscient narrator shifts constantly among the various characters. Galgut’s characters are wonderfully drawn, the environment masterfully painted, and the narrative compelling.
The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See is a deeply researched book by the author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, another story of lifelong friendship between two girls. (The Island of Sea Women is set in Jeju Island off the coast of South Korea while Snow Flower was set in China.) Jeju is a matrifocal community, with men caring for the children and women working for families’ income, both from dangerous diving for seafood and seasonal farming. The two friends, Young-sook and Mi-ja, from different backgrounds, pledge to protect each other for life.
That pledge is harshly tested through the Japanese occupation, the Second World War, U.S. military government, a Workers Party rebellion, the Korean War, and even the encroachment of modernism. It’s a story of love, loyalty, resentment, politics and violence, betrayal and eventually forgiveness – covering 70 years. It is at once intimate and epic. See’s research of the women’s diving collective and Jeju’s way of life is extensive, at one point more than I needed. That passed, however, as the focus on the women’s evolving relationship drove the riveting narrative.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan is an extraordinary book, more than worthy of its 2014 Booker Award. The novel follows the lives of several characters during World War II, all affected one way or another by a brutal Japanese POW camp in Thailand tasked with constructing a rail line from Siam to Burma. Most of the POW’s were Australian, some born in Tasmania. An imprisoned Australian colonel, surgeon Durrigo Evans, struggles to survive and to save the hundreds of prisoners in his charge – from disease, brutality, and starvation. This is a lot deeper than The Bridge Over the River Kwai.
The Japanese officer in command, Nakamura, rationalizes his inhumanity by religiously clinging to the myth of the emperor’s goodness and the spirit of Japan. Occasionally, he and Durrigo discuss poetry. The prisoners focus on surviving the next hour, clinging to memories of their lives before. For Durrigo, it’s an adulterous pre-war love affair and his “proper” engagement to a good and devoted woman that culminates post-war in a boring, passionless marriage. Flanagan raises profound questions about war, imprisonment, passion, family, success, and public versus private life. It’s about what we remember and what we forget. The book takes its name from a haiku poem by famous Japanese poet Matsuo Basho, written movingly about our travel through life.
Nora Webster by Colm Toibin, set in County Wexford, Ireland, is told from the perspective of 40-something Nora, whose husband of 21 years, Maurice, has died prematurely, leaving her with four children, no job, scant pension. She’s a plain woman, in strained circumstances, revealed in plain language. And therein lies the richness of Toibin’s writing.
We follow Nora through her bereavement, her struggles dealing with children and family, her efforts to stand on her own feet, discover herself, assert agency, and uncover strengths she did not know she had. Toibin’s painting of the Irish community (in this case, the town of Enniscorthy in the 1960’s) is always pitch perfect. (Enniscorthy is also the hometown of the main character of Toibin’s novel Brooklyn, which focuses on the Irish immigrant experience.) The travel in Nora Webster is her inner journey to a life without her husband, set against the backdrop of the gathering “troubles” in Ireland. She finds solace in music, including voice training, and develops a part of her that transcends grieving widow and frustrated mother. A poignant book written in a deceptively simple way that gives a blueprint to recovery after experiencing a loved one’s tragically early death.