Washington Black by Esi Edugyan review – out of slavery in a hot-air balloon

A slave becomes a brilliant scientific illustrator in a novel whose plot twists generate a rich, if uneven, mythic world

Certain subjects may feel daunting for even the most ambitious novelists: the Holocaust is one of them, slavery surely another. But Esi Edugyan’s ambition is extraordinary. Her 2011 novel Half Blood Blues centred on a black musician incarcerated in Sachsenhausen concentration camp; her new one, longlisted for the Man Booker prize, is narrated by the eponymous Washington Black, who starts his life as a slave on a plantation in Barbados.

Many writers and film-makers are delving into the subject of slavery, and each one has to find their own way through a thicket of moral choices. Edugyan has clearly thought about the importance of showing how victims of brutality remain human in the face of constant inhumanity. Big Kit, for instance, a mother figure to Black, is the object ...

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy review – a bright mosaic

A scattershot narrative makes this long-awaited second novel unwieldy, if ultimately rewardingArundhati Roy’s second novel is not just one story, but many. Here is a trans woman from Delhi, here is a man from an untouchable background passing himself off as a Muslim, here is a government official retired from a post in Kabul, here is a resistance fighter in Kashmir, here is a woman in the Maoist rebellion in Bastar, here is a rebellious woman who kidnaps an abandoned baby, and more. Indeed, from time to time the birds and the beetles become as important as the people in this narrative. This scene seemed to me to sum up the unique flavour of the novel: an owl is looking through a window; inside the room, a woman is lying with a sleeping baby she has kidnapped. The reader is eager to leave the owl’s point of view ...

Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak review – a rich journey into romance and religion

A young Muslim woman’s spiritual quest takes her from Istanbul to Oxford as she learns about love, faith and real lifeThere is a compelling confidence about the scope of Elif Shafak’s work. As a writer who stands between west and east, working in Turkish and English, living in Istanbul and London, she engages with some of the most pressing political and personal themes of our times. Her new novel is no exception. We begin with middle-aged Peri and her teenage daughter Deniz stuck in a traffic jam in Istanbul in 2016 as they make their way to a dinner party. The reader is immediately alerted both to Peri’s standing as a “fine modern Muslim” and to the cracks in that appearance. Today, the narrator warns us, Peri will confront “the void in her soul”. The plot wastes little time in beginning that journey into the void; Peri is ...

Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak review – a rich journey into romance and religion

A young Muslim woman’s spiritual quest takes her from Istanbul to Oxford as she learns about love, faith and real lifeThere is a compelling confidence about the scope of Elif Shafak’s work. As a writer who stands between west and east, working in Turkish and English, living in Istanbul and London, she engages with some of the most pressing political and personal themes of our times. Her new novel is no exception. We begin with middle-aged Peri and her teenage daughter Deniz stuck in a traffic jam in Istanbul in 2016 as they make their way to a dinner party. The reader is immediately alerted both to Peri’s standing as a “fine modern Muslim” and to the cracks in that appearance. Today, the narrator warns us, Peri will confront “the void in her soul”. The plot wastes little time in beginning that journey into the void; Peri is ...

A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea by Melissa Fleming – review

The miraculous tale of a Syrian refugee rescued from the waves loses its power in the tellingMelissa Fleming, chief spokesperson of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has clearly been tussling with the questions that those who work with refugees tend to ask a lot. How can we encourage more people to see refugees as individuals? How can we ensure that refugees are treated in a way that recognises our shared humanity? Reading her book, an account of the refugee crisis as experienced by one Syrian woman, you can see immediately why Fleming thought that telling this particular story could be a way forward. Doaa al-Zamel is both ordinary enough to compel sympathy, and extraordinary enough to be unforgettable. Continue reading...

We’ve been expecting you, Ms Bond: why fiction needs more female spies

The idea of Gillian Anderson as 007 has caused controversy. But spy fiction is such a rich and inventive genre, isn’t it time to give women a more central role?
It is a playful and memorable image: a charismatic actor, Gillian Anderson, splashed above the iconic logo of 007. But I was surprised by how many voices – male and female – were raised against the idea behind it when the picture was shared on social media last month. Why should there be such resistance to the prospect of a female Bond? It seems unlikely that this would be the case in any other genre. Spy fiction has proved remarkably hardy over the years, from the subtle dramas of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene to the brash adventures of Ian Fleming or Len Deighton, and on screen with surefooted realisations from Alfred Hitchcock to Sydney Pollack. The genre may ...