Posted in Book Reviews

Hotel Silence – Book Oxygen Review

Hotel Silence

Auour Ava Olafsdottir

Published by Pushkin Press 22 February 2018

224pp, paperback, £9.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside


Jonas is a middle-aged man in crisis; getting tattooed is just one sign of his malaise. The anchors of his life have come loose and he is not sure there is a reason to go on. His wife has divorced him, but not before telling him that his twenty-something daughter, Gudrun Waterlily, is not his biological child. His mother has dementia and is sliding into another world. Her lucid moments are becoming more and more rare, and Jonas misses the woman she was. He decides to end it all and calmly contemplates his options. He feels he can’t subject Gudrun Waterlily to the horror of finding his body and decides to disappear, choosing to travel to Hotel Silence, in an unidentified war-torn country, currently experiencing a lull in hostilities. He takes a toolbox and drill with him in case he decides to hang himself and needs to put up a hook.

Icelandic author Olafsdottir’s prose is pleasingly, engagingly spare as she allows things to be left unsaid between the various characters and in the narrative as a whole, leaving gaps that readers must fill in for themselves. Considering the initial subject matter – suicide – this novel is by no means a glum or depressing read. The author has gifted Jonas with a dry wit and an often funny, matter-of-fact attitude to ending his life.

Unexpectedly, Jonas finds life amongst people who have suffered great losses and hardship gives him a new perspective. Hotel Silence, run by brother and sister, Fifi and May, is rundown and in need of many small repairs. Toolbox in hand, Jonas starts to enjoy the feeling of being needed again as he fixes problems around the hotel. He befriends May, who has a young son, Adam, and feels he has a place in the world again. The locals, many of whom are physically and mentally scarred, make Jonas re-assess his life and his decision to end it. Whilst he feels cast adrift, these people have faced the ghastliness of war and yet they do not talk about the past, only their plans to rebuild their shattered lives. He also reads his student notebooks and rediscovers himself as a young man.

Hotel Silence (winner of the Icelandic Literature Prize) could easily become a run-of-the-mill story of one man’s search for redemption but Olafsdottir makes sure that there are no simplistic, happy endings for everyone. Jonas’s spiritual journey from depression to a kind of normality is echoed by the attempts of the locals living around Hotel Silence to return to their pre-war lives. A sense of hope for the future is present in the latter part of the novel, in contrast to the opening chapters. In Jonas, Olafsdottir has created a rounded, humorous character and it is a pleasure to spend some time in his company.


Posted in Book Reviews

The Fishermen – Book Oxygen Review

The Fishermen

Chigozie Obioma

Published by Pushkin Press UK, Little Brown US

304pp, hardcover, £14.99/$26

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Chigozie Obioma’s debut novel, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is set in his Nigerian homeland in the 1990s, and centres on the lives of four young brothers growing up during turbulent times. The story is told through the eyes of Ben, the youngest brother, both as an adult and in flashbacks as a child, and starts when he is just nine years old.

Their father, Mr Agwu, works for the Central Bank of Nigeria and he is transferred to a branch in a faraway town. He tells the boys he will whip them if he hears they have misbehaved while he is away.  However the four boys, the eldest in a family of six, start to rebel against their father’s strict rule. They go fishing, hoping to earn a little money, but get much more than they bargained for when they meet Abulu, a bizarre local man said to have the power of prophecy. He tells Ikenna, the oldest brother, that he will be killed by one of his brothers, by a fisherman. This affects Ikenna badly and he withdraws into himself and becomes wary, ‘a python’, waiting for one of his brothers to deal him a fatal blow.

Obioma skilfully builds the family dynamics. The strict Mr Agwu wants his sons to become a pilot, a lawyer, a doctor, and a professor, to make him proud and envied by his neighbours. The boys just want to be boys and find it easier to slip away from their mother’s watchful eyes to fish and have fun. Their fun comes to an end when Abulu makes his prophecy known.

There is a beguiling, mythic quality to Obioma’s tale as his characters straddle the modern Nigeria and an older land with its own ancient customs and beliefs. The boys’ parents often speak in parables, particularly Mr Agwu, which adds to the mythological quality of the story. The Nigerian oral storytelling tradition looms large and that, along with the rhythm of the language gives a very strong sense of place and time. At times Obioma’s language becomes a little too florid and his descriptions feel overextended but this does not lessen the intense atmosphere he creates.

The fate of Nigeria, from the heady days of MKO Abiola’s ‘Hope 93’ political campaign, when everything seemed possible, to the dark days when Abiola was imprisoned and later died, form the backdrop to the story. There are parallels to be drawn between the collapse of the new Nigeria and what happens to the Agwu family, but they are subtly drawn.

This is a universal story of family love, loyalty, and discord. Through Ikenna, Obioma asks whether our destiny is already written or whether we are the agents of our own fate. It is a vast area to explore but Obioma distills the question down to the complicated relationships between family members and shows how opposing beliefs and misunderstandings can lead to catastrophic conflicts. This is an accomplished first work, from a new and distinctive voice.

Posted in Book Reviews

Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment – Book Oxygen Review

Heroic Measures
Jill Ciment
Published by Pushkin Press 27 August, 2015
208 pp, paperback, £7.99
Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

An elderly couple selling their New York apartment while worrying about their sick dog might not sound like the right ingredients for a compelling novel but in Jill Ciment’s hands something magical happens. She takes these unpromising elements and fashions them into a beautiful, warm tale of love and loyalty.
Ruth and Alex Cohen have lived happily in their fifth floor, New York apartment for 45 years. Alex is an artist and Ruth is a retired school teacher and their daily routines centre on their adored dachshund, Dorothy. The elderly couple are finding the stairs to their apartment becoming increasingly difficult and a realtor tells them they could expect to get one million dollars if they sold up. The thought of moving to a building with an elevator is tempting and so they let the realtor arrange an open viewing day. However, the night before, Dorothy falls ill and the Cohens rush her through a gridlocked city to the animal hospital. Throughout the next day they worry about their dog while trying to navigate their way through the New York property market.
Ciment’s characters are finely drawn, full of the small details and eccentricities that make each person unique. This includes Dorothy, whose frightened thoughts tug at the heart strings, but thankfully Ciment is too clever to anthropomorphize the little dachshund too much. The pet is the physical representation of the deep love the couple have for each other, a love that has matured into comfortable silences and care for their dog.
New York and the crazy property market are laid bare as the Cohens host an open house which attracts a number of quirky characters. They also view properties themselves, hoping to find a decent apartment in the area with that much-needed elevator. As the Cohens bid on a property and receive bids for their own, the pace picks up and becomes an edge-of-the-seat thriller. Will the Cohens receive a high enough bid to pay for the apartment they desperately want? Every time the phone rings the couple are on tenterhooks. Will it be a new bid or the doctor reporting Dorothy’s progress at the hospital?
The story takes place over one weekend and the tight timescale adds to the tension, as does a suspected terrorist attack that leaves New Yorkers edgy and suspicious. The Cohens’ realtor gives them updates on how the hunt for a terrorist affects the price of property and Ruth is disgusted to find herself caught up in the frenzy of speculation.
Ciment skilfully brings all the threads of the story together into a satisfying ending, one that remains true to her characters. While the story is an affectionate portrait of a New York couple, Ciment steers clear of sentimentality and schmaltz. A weekend with the Cohens and their little dog is time very well spent.