Author: Jemma Wayne
Finished on: 28 August 2016
Where did I get this book: Bought on the kindle
One of the joys of the kindle is that you can be sitting in the sunshine browsing twitter miles from the nearest bookshop one minute, spot a book you like the look of, and then be reading it the next. Without moving a muscle except to press a few buttons on your screen (and maybe take a couple of sips of the ice cold beer at your elbow.) Even better still, you can download the first 25 pages free to read and make up your mind about whether this is your cup of tea or not.
I realise I sound like some kind of kindle advert here, but I fell a little bit I love with this magic little device whilst on holiday. And getting involved with the Guardian ‘Not The Booker Prize’ was the perfect opportunity to put it through its paces.
This is the eighth year of the newspaper’s alternative literary prize. The shortlist is voted for by real people, and the winner selected by a panel of judges chosen on the basis of their contributions to geeky online book discussions. Hmm… sound familiar at all? Pretty up my street.
This year the six shortlisted books are all from independent publishers, and the writers are all new to me. So I couldn’t resist, and got stuck in. And kicked off with Chains Of Sand.
The description of this book by its publisher is ‘a novel about identity, family and clashes of culture. It explores racism in Israel, anti-Semitism in Britain… the first fictional address of the current Israeli-Palestinian crisis’. Phew. Not a light beach read then. I was expecting something pretty heavyweight, given the complexity and gravity of such harrowing subject matter.
But it was not what I expected at all.
The subject matter is indeed heavyweight, but the language and style of writing is not. Wayne’s style is simple, straightforward and accessible. I don’t mean to say that it doesn’t do justice to the complexity and gravity of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, because it does. Chains Of Sand was an education for me on this hugely important and long-lasting conflict about which I knew shamefully little. But it is written in such a way that I was not aware of learning anything until I put it down and reflected. If anything, it feels like a guilty pleasure read, the kind that should have a neon pink cover with gold embossed writing. This mismatch between subject matter and style isn’t a problem. In fact, it is quite refreshing. But I wonder how many of its potential readership this book will reach given the way it is described.
Chains Of Sand is enormously gripping. It says a lot about a book when you stay up far too late reading it when you really should be getting plenty of sleep. The characters’ lives and dilemmas are absorbing, and the plot takes us from cliffhanger to cliffhanger in such a way that there is never a good moment to put the book down and turn off the light. Wayne had even given me a cliffhanger by page 25, meaning that this was the fastest transition from ‘sample’ to ‘buy the whole book’ of the holiday.
However, while there is some strong characterisation, this is largely of the main two protagonists, who are both men. At times I found it hard to believe this book was written by a woman, as many of the depictions and descriptions of the female characters were surprisingly one-dimensional.
Daniel and Udi, who are our eyes and ear into the story, both constantly compare the women in their lives to each other, and primarily in terms of their relative beauty. The women either seem to be young and beautiful (with their ‘pert bottoms’.) Or anxious mothers. It is true though that some of the most moving moments in the whole book were around anxious mothers as they struggle with the challenge of letting their children take their own path. (But let’s be honest, that is almost certainly because I am an anxious mother.) But it was noticeable how the majority of the female characters fit neatly into these stereotypes.
There is some exploration of feminist issues around the crisis, and around Israeli Jewish culture. But these passages seem oddly shoehorned in, and are conveyed with academic-style language that jars. In a book of:
Of course there is Safia. Safia. Intelligent, feisty, beautiful in a way that even after all this time surprises me, and elegantly spoken – a mixture of St John’s Wood and Tehran – from underneath a dark fringe that covers half of one eye and that she continually hooks behind her left ear.
We suddenly get a bit of:
They are extending the feminist discourse into a multi-cultural context, and they are filtering the political conversation through a feminist lens.
So Chains of Sand was not what I was expecting. But that was part of the pleasure. And I came away having been entertained, gripped, and educated about Israeli history and politics. It is a good read, with a setting rich and ripe for exploration. I would have to agree with Daniel when he says of the lure of Israel
There’s something about the history of the geography.
The Guardian ‘Not The Booker Prize’ shortlist is here. (For some reason I am unable to embed links in the blog, except back to my own pages?) https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2016/aug/15/the-not-the-booker-prize-2016-shortlist-revealed-time-to-get-reading