Washington Black by Esi Edugyan review – beautiful and beguiling

Mixing horror with high adventure, this powerful novel looks at the burden of freedom in a time of slavery

Washington Black opens on a 19th-century sugar plantation in Barbados and launches into the horrors of that experience from the child’s-eye view of the eponymous Washington Black, an 11-year-old slave. But it would be a mistake to think that Esi Edugyan’s Man Booker-longlisted third book is an earnest story of colonial slavery.

Just over 10 pages from the start, in a second beginning, Wash tells us he was a “freeman” by the age of 18, and it is clear that Edugyan is coming at her subject sideways, not with gritty realism but with fabular edges, and as much concerned with the nature of freedom as with slavery, both for her white characters and black.

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The Beekeeper of Sinjar by Dunya Mikhail review – the Iraqi Oskar Schindler

How an apiarist created a hive of smugglers and rescued scores of women from Islamic State

Until 2014, Abdullah Shrem was a beekeeper in Iraq, tending to his hive and selling honey across the mountains of Sinjar. Then Islamic State forces arrived, announcing their terror in symbols daubed on the doorways of the homes they raided: “They wrote the letter Y on our homes and on our stores and built a barrier like the Berlin Wall – N for the Christians, and Y for the Yazidis. S for the Sunnis, and Sh for the Shi’ites,” Shrem recalls.

The Yazidis met the worst fate: men were marched into mass graves and shot, while women were separated – young from old, mothers from children, wives from virgins. The younger were taken to a “marketplace” to be sold as sex slaves or sabaya; the older were killed or sold as domestic ...

Hold by Michael Donkor review – a Ghanaian housemaid’s tale

A bold literary debut gives voice to a female section of Ghanaian society that is often seen but not heard

Michael Donkor has said that the inspiration for this debut novel came from the housemaids who cooked, cleaned and waited on him on childhood trips to his extended family in Ghana. These women were ubiquitous but always silent.

In Hold, he gives them a voice through Belinda, a 17-year-old domestic servant who is sent from a well-heeled Ghanaian household in Kumasi to look after Amma, a troubled teenager who lives with her Ghanaian-born parents in Clapham, south London. Belinda leaves behind a younger housemaid, Mary, a mischievous and lovable character whom she has come to see as a younger sister.

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The Occasional Virgin by Hanan al-Shaykh review – farce, faith and sexual revenge

Two old friends, displaced from Lebanon, meet for a holiday on the Italian coast

Lebanese-born Hanan al-Shaykh has never shied away from depicting female sexuality in her fiction: she did it in her earliest novels and in her ribald retelling of One Thousand and One Nights in 2011. What worked so well in that fabular setting is less successful in the modern day of The Occasional Virgin, which features two friends who fled the conflict in Lebanon 20 years previously. Huda is a Muslim and lives in Canada; Yvonne, who lives in London, is Christian. Both are independent and successful, but grew up in households weighted in favour of men, with difficult mothers to contend with, and this past comes in flashbacks after they meet for a holiday on the Italian coast. They are also single, and it is clear that they are sexual adventurers on this trip abroad: ...

How to be a black woman and succeed: two friends who have written the manual

Elizabeth Uviebinené and Yomi Adegoke have turned a dream into a hot publishing property – a self-help guide for black women

In March 2015, Elizabeth Uviebinené had a brainwave that a less determined 22-year-old might have dismissed as a water-cooler pipe dream. It was ignited by a single chapter in a book by Sheryl Sandberg . “I’d always devoured self-help books growing up – books like Lean In,” says Uviebinené. “These were written by white women and were great but they didn’t have the added complexities of how to be a black woman and get ahead. It was like we didn’t exist in these books. Sandberg had one chapter in her follow-up book [Option B] about a black woman’s experience and it sparked something in me. A need for a sisterhood. I wanted to bottle it.”

The bottling, she thought, would come in the form of a ...

Salman Rushdie: ‘I like black comedy in dark times’

The acclaimed novelist on his love of satire, Philip Roth and the death of the American dream

Salman Rushdie is an internationally successful British-Indian author. His second novel, Midnight’s Children (1981), won the Booker prize and was subsequently awarded “The Booker of Bookers” and “The Best of the Bookers” in 1993 and 2008. He has written children’s books, nonfiction and a memoir, Joseph Anton (2012), which reflected on the controversy around his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses (1988). Knighted in 2007, and now 70, Rushdie moved from Britain to the US in 2000. He has served as the president of PEN American Center and been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The Golden House (Vintage, £8.99), his 14th novel, is now out in paperback.

The Golden House reflects on life as it has recently unfolded around us, from the US elections to ...

Skybound by Rebecca Loncraine review – a euphoric, courageous book

When, with severe illness, the ground disappeared from beneath Loncraine, she decided to conquer her fear, take up gliding and head for the clouds

“But I would rather be horizontal,” begins Sylvia Plath’s poem “I am Vertical”. Plath, poleaxed by depression, wishes her body to become part of the soil, yet even so looks up to the sky with a yearning for transcendence: “It is more natural to me, lying down / Then the sky and I are in open conversation”. Rebecca Loncraine invokes these lines in her memoir, Skybound, and they cast the same blend of light and shadow across this profound, euphoric and courageous book about how to live joyously, and how to meet death.

Loncraine was in her mid-30s when she got breast cancer. Two years after gruelling treatment, she entered into her own “open conversation” with the sky by learning to fly, or “soar” as she puts it, in ...

Whistle in the Dark review – a satire on every parent’s nightmare

Emma Healey’s story about a teenager’s disappearance struggles with tone, but remains emotionally compelling

There were several striking absences in Emma Healey’s debut novel, Elizabeth Is Missing, from an elderly woman suffering with memory loss through dementia, to the disappearance of her sister decades earlier and the eponymous Elizabeth.

That book received an avalanche of praise and bestseller stardom. This second novel, Whistle in the Dark, toys with the same subjects of disappearance and blots on the memory, except that the narrative intrigue is built around what happens when the disappeared return and what, if anything, can be retrieved of their lost time.

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Whistle in the Dark review – a satire on every parent’s nightmare

Emma Healey’s story about a teenager’s disappearance struggles with tone, but remains emotionally compelling

There were several striking absences in Emma Healey’s debut novel, Elizabeth Is Missing, from an elderly woman suffering with memory loss through dementia, to the disappearance of her sister decades earlier and the eponymous Elizabeth.

That book received an avalanche of praise and bestseller stardom. This second novel, Whistle in the Dark, toys with the same subjects of disappearance and blots on the memory, except that the narrative intrigue is built around what happens when the disappeared return and what, if anything, can be retrieved of their lost time.

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Margo Jefferson: ‘I have always loved Michael Jackson’

The US author talks about her book on the pop star whose life distilled so many of our obsessions with race, gender and the body

Margo Jefferson is the author of Negroland: A Memoir, which won a National Book Critics Circle award, (for autobiography) and was shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford prize. Born in Chicago, she lives in New York and has worked as an associate editor for Newsweek, and a book and theatre critic for the New York Times, where she won a Pulitzer prize for criticism. Aged 70, she now teaches at Columbia University School of Arts. Her book On Michael Jackson will be published on 3 May (Granta, £9.99).

This book is about the life and work of Michael Jackson, from his early years as a child star to the “freak show” aspects of his image later on. Why write about an already ...

Ordinary People by Diana Evans review – magnificence and marital angst

An exuberant investigation into midlife malaise explores love, compromise and the way we live today

In his 2004 song “Ordinary People”, John Legend portrays the bittersweet stage of a romance past its first flush, when the mess of everyday life is setting in. “Passed the infatuation phase”, he sings, “Seems like we argue every day.” Diana Evans borrows his song’s title and theme for her exuberant third novel, about midlife relationship malaise. The shadow of marital breakdown loomed around the edges of her award-winning debut novel, 2005’s 26a, which was framed by the beginning and end of Charles and Diana’s marriage (as well as Diana’s funeral) in the first and last chapters.

Ordinary People is much more about the compromises made after the babies have arrived and the butterflies have stopped fluttering. For the two late thirtysomething couples here, existential panic is sparked by dwindling sex lives and ...

The Wife’s Tale by Aida Edemariam review – anatomy of an unyielding spirit

The extraordinary life of the author’s grandmother, who married aged eight and survived tumultuous events, is richly and painstakingly evoked

Aida Edemariam found the subject of this engaging biography in her own family tree – The Wife’s Tale being the story of her paternal grandmother. And in choosing to excavate and write a family history, she follows a growing trend among biographers reshaping the genre with intimate studies of late mothers, complicated fathers and tragic siblings, from Helen Macdonald and Richard Beard to 2017’s Costa prize-winning biographer, Rebecca Stott.

In Edemariam’s case, it is the life of Yetemegnu, who was born in the northern Ethiopian city of Gondar and died five years ago at the grand age of 97 (or thereabouts: the timeline in the book explains that formal birth certificates weren’t used in Ethiopia in the early 20th century). She emerges as a bewitching and resilient figure whose life-changing ...

Everywhere Is Somewhere by Naseem Khan review – the double life of a cultural activist

The cultural pioneer recalls her experiences of being an outsider in postwar Britain and the struggle for diversity in the arts

Naseem Khan, the cultural activist who spent a lifetime campaigning for diversity in the arts, was given a terminal cancer diagnosis last year. In her final days, she told her daughter that she wanted to do three things: see her grandsons, talk to her Buddhist teacher and sign the book contract for her memoir.

She was not well enough to sign the contract in the end so her daughter did it for her. Everywhere Is Somewhere is what she left behind, written in the last 18 months of her life, and confirmed for publication a day before her death on 8 June. It is a hybrid book, at once an autobiography that explains Khan’s life through her work, and a history of BAME arts development in Britain from 1946 ...

Diversity in publishing – still hideously middle-class and white?

Two years ago, we called publishers to account for the glaring lack of diversity in the industry. Pledges were made and initiatives set up. Have things improved?

  • Find out about the new projects to encourage inclusivity in the book business

In December 2015, British publishing stood accused of woeful blindness to diversity, and not for the first time, after World Book Night (WBN) announced its titles, and none of the 15 books was by a writer of colour. An apology was issued by organisers but a wider malaise had already set in, and along with it, the troubling feeling that WBN’s oversight was less an isolated incident and more a recurring pattern of exclusion that stretched across the literary establishment.

A report on the state of the books industry had been published earlier that year by the development agency Spread the Word, which drew attention to how intransigently white, middle-class ...

David Olusoga: ‘There’s a dark side to British history, and we saw a flash of it this summer’

The writer and broadcaster on reassessing black history and the fallout from the Brexit vote

For as long as David Olusoga has been writing and broadcasting on black British history (almost two decades), he has received infuriated letters from the public. Nowadays, there are tweets too, which employ the same fulminating tone.

“The number of people who say, ‘I’m sick of hearing about slavery’, or ‘black people are always talking about slavery’. My response to them is ‘Name a British plantation. Name a slave trader. Name a British slave ship.’ Normally they can’t, because we don’t know that much about slavery. It’s not a central part of our national story.”

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