The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

This is one of the most enchanting books I have read; a gentle, contemplative book that chronicles Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s year-long relationship with a snail.

Snail

In her 30s, Bailey contracts a debilitating neurological disorder that leaves her bedridden, barely able to sit up, let alone stand. She has to move from her farm house into a studio flat to be closer to help, leaving her dog and her outdoor lifestyle behind. Confined to bed, she experiences a loneliness that chronic illness can bring, when friends are unsure how to be around you, and she starts slipping into a dark place in her mind, experiencing panic attacks and great despondency.

One day a friend brings her a potted field violet on which she has purposefully put a woodland snail for Bailey. She is left bemused, wondering what on earth she is to do with it. Why should she enjoy a snail? How could she look after it when she couldn’t look after herself? She couldn’t even return it to the woods.

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When the snail starts to crawl out of the pot that evening, Bailey thinks she won’t see it again and falls asleep, but when she wakes, she sees it has returned to the same place and that the envelope nearby has a few small squares chewed out of it. Thinking somewhat guiltily that the snail can’t live on paper alone, she puts a few flower petals near it and later, in the silence that fills the room, she hears the snail chewing on them.

The sound was of someone very small munching celery continuously … the tiny intimate sound of the snail’s eating gave me a distinct feeling of companionship and shared space.”

And so the relationship between Bailey and the snail begins. With a new companion, as unlikely as it is, Bailey refocuses her attention from herself to the snail and in this way, her illness becomes more bearable and less lonely. As the snail is nocturnal and Bailey an insomniac, she spends hours observing its behaviour, and the tenderness and skill with which she writes about the snail makes this unusual subject a joy to read about.

“Each evening the snail awoke and with astonishing poise moved gracefully to the rim of the pot and peered over, surveying the strange country that lay ahead. Pondering its circumstance with a regal air, as if from the turret of a castle, it waved its tentacles first this way and then that, as though responding to a distant melody.”

Concerned about the snail’s living space, she buys a terrarium and recreates a woodland world for it to live in; she finds out what sort of food snails eat and feeds it mushrooms and egg shells. She starts reading widely about molluscs to learn more about her unexpected roommate, and the more she discovers about the common snail, the more respect she gains for it. She trawls gastropod literature, from Darwin to poetry to modern-day scientific research, making  this as much a natural history or educational book as it is a memoir.

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“A snail has an interesting life; its courtship is remarkable, its various natural abilities are astounding, it has a memory, and, just like humans, it likes a comfortable place to sleep and very good food.”

It is a relationship of observation; Bailey doesn’t anthropomorphise the snail – she contemplates giving it a name, but in the end decides ‘snail’ is the best moniker. She doesn’t touch or stroke the snail or make demands of it; she watches it and learns. In this way, I also learned. Who knew that most snails are hermaphrodites, and that snails have a mating courtship? Who knew that after fertilisation, they can hold off having babies for months? Bailey didn’t   – until her snail unexpectedly lays eggs and her room turns into a snail crèche, hosting 118 baby snails at once stage.

Having had a chronic fatigue illness similar to, though not as severe as, Bailey’s, and being able to relate to the profound loneliness of an often-misunderstood condition, I found her experience almost unbearably touching, and admired her ability not to slide into self-pity at any stage, and to stay in the beauty of the moment.

This is a short book, but a physically beautiful one with small line drawings of snails trawling through its pages. Its quiet meditative tone makes it a soothing read, and left me feeling that something good still exists in the world when humans and nature can connect in this tender, trusting way.

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Visit Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s website at http://www.elisabethtovabailey.net

 

 

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A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa

This is a startling memoir of a man who escaped a life of misery and starvation in North Korea, where he had lived for 36 years under the brutal reign of Kim Il-sung and then his son, Kim Jong-il.

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Masaji Ishikawa was born in Japan to a Korean father and Japanese mother. By virtue of being half-Korean, he and his family were treated with disdain and he was bullied at school. His father, perhaps because of the humiliation he suffered in the workplace for being Korean, took his frustration out on his wife and beat her regularly while Ishikawa and his sisters watched, unable to do anything. Despite this, the family lived a comfortable life, Ishikawa began to make friends and enjoyed himself in his own small way.

Life changed, however, when in 1958 the communist North Korean leader, Kim Il-sung, urged all Koreans to come home, promising them a better life in ‘paradise on earth’. Ishikawa’s father, lured by the idea of living a more lucrative life in a society where he would be accepted, packed up the family and returned home to Korea with them.

Here they were sent to a small village where Ishikawa soon learned that communist North Korea was ‘hell on earth’. Having expected excellent education, a better standard of living and abundant food, they soon realised that none of this would ever happen. Kim Il-sung was a ruthless dictator who ran the country as a brutal totalitarian regime. In a cruel turn of fate, as Ishikawa’s family was now considered Japanese, they were treated with contempt as the lowest caste in North Korea. The only positive in the move was that Ishikawa’s father stopped beating his mother and became a gentler person towards all of them.

Ishikawa tells the details of his life in North Korea in a straight-forward, honest, and not overly-dramatic manner, and in this way makes the narrative an excellent tool to carry such an horrific story. The translation from Japanese is well done and his voice stays authentic. It is impossible to relate in total here the brutality of his family’s existence, which seems to worsen with every chapter. His family was initially given a house but, because they were Japanese, it was burned down and they had to fashion a makeshift shack out of spare wood. His family lived in complete squalor (like the majority of the population) with no heating, no new clothes, and hardly any food – the government was supposed to supply food parcels but only did so sporadically; or any food that was successfully farmed was taken away. Ishikawa’s father found it difficult to find work and so their income was virtually non-existent. His mother foraged the land every day for something to eat and they often managed to stay alive by eating  boiled bark and weeds.

The tragic ludicrousness of the North Korean regime is often highlighted by Ishikawa, one of the examples being the farming methods forced upon farmers. They were instructed to plant the rice seedlings as close together as possible, in order to produce large quantities of rice. However, the plants were unable to flourish because of being squashed together, and crop after crop failed, only adding to the dire food shortages.

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An official portrait of Kim Il-sung

Ishikawa never bought into the propaganda with which so many citizens were brainwashed, however he went along with it, for to cross it was to lose one’s life or be sent to a concentration camp.

“When you find yourself caught in a crazy system dreamed up by dangerous lunatics, you just do what you’re told.”

Despite his intelligence, he was never able to get a good job because he was Japanese, and was finally reduced to working in the coal mines; the dirtiest, hardest labour. He married – an arranged marriage – and had children who proved to be a constant source of anguish for him as he was unable to provide a good life for them.

When Kim Il-sung died, his son Kim-Jong il took over and, although it seemed not possible, life became even worse for North Koreans. Ishikawa’s family – and others – literally started starving to death:

“Ever since setting foot in North Korea more than thirty years before, I’d known nothing but hunger. Everyone had been halfway to starvation for decades. But things had taken a turn for the worse starting in 1991. From 1991 until Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994, extremely cold weather wreaked havoc on the fragile food supply.”

People became walking skeletons, Ishikawa’s family included, and he watched his children become weaker and thinner, and then his mother die of hunger, her exhausted body unable to keep working.

After 36 years of this hell on earth, Ishikawa decided he had to escape to Japan and then try to get his family out of North Korea. He knew that the only alternative was death. Despite his weakened state, he eventually left North Korea by swimming over the Yalu River in the dead of night, through a ‘river of darkness’; he was knocked unconsciousness by a rock in the flooding waters and landed up barely alive on the banks on the Chinese side of the river. Once well enough, he contacted the Japanese authorities who negotiated with the Chinese to bring him safely into Japan.

The tragedy of his story is that, once in Japan, Ishikawa hoped to earn enough money to get his family out of North Korea. In an ironic twist, however, he was unable to find substantial enough work as he was now regarded as being North Korean. He never saw his family again.

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Masaji Ishikawa

The book – however horrific the details – is a testament to Ishikawa’s resilience and determination to stay alive with dignity. This needs to be read by Westerners  – in a time where North Korea appears in the news as being ‘normal’ enough to walk into the Winter Olympics with South Korea, this story is a stark reminder of what life really is like in North Korea. Perhaps, too, it serves as a warning of  what a country under a populist leader is in danger of becoming.

 

 

 

 

 

Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr

Anthony Doerr, the author of the best-seller All The Light We Cannot See, received notification that he had won a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome when his new-born twins were only 12 hours old. Six months later, he, his wife and the twins boarded a plane in their home town, Boise, Idaho, and flew to Rome to live for a year.

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This book accounts their year in Rome, divided into the four  seasons, starting with fall. With each season, Doerr details their new life, the challenges they face living in a foreign city where they can’t speak the language, his failed attempts at writing a novel, the relentless demands of being a new parent; all encapsulated by his beautiful paean to Rome.  It is a mix of travelogue, parenting guide, literary criticism, writing guide, with a dose of self-deprecating humour thrown into the mix.

The demands of parenting twins, coupled with insomnia, leaves Doerr so exhausted most of the time that writing becomes a near impossibility, and so he turns to Pliny – “How can fiction compete with this guy?” he says; and he turns his attention to the new city in which he lives. “And now there’s Rome, beginning to seep into everything, flooding my notebooks: the slumbering palaces, the hallucinatory light.” He describes the city in exquisite detail: the residents, the food, the architecture, the history, and often nature within the city; the way the light falls, the colour of the sky, the strength of wind, the rain, the snow. (And how he wishes to see snow fall through the dome of the Pantheon; something he never gets to do.)

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He weaves such intricacy into his observations that every sentence about Rome made me feel as though I were walking through it with him – or wish that I were walking with him. He is particularly good at describing the smallest human interactions – whether it be a couple walking past him, a shop keeper, a child holding her father’s hand – and, in doing so, creates an intimate impression of this vast city.

Pope John Paul dies in that same year and Doerr gives us an an account of the millions of pilgrims who flooded the city to attend to the funeral, focusing on the individuals, rather than the pomp and ceremony of the funeral itself. “It’s as if I’ve wandered into the biggest tailgate party in history, three days too long, the enthusiasm faded to a raw-throated, glassy fatigue-some people are crying; many are asleep. Volunteers hand out liters of water. A woman cradles a full grown German Shepherd. A man snores.”

Then there are the accounts of parenting, which are so funny and touching and so full of love for his boys, Owen and Henry, who seem never to sleep. He takes us through their developmental steps: crawling, teething, walking, all against the backdrop of Rome. Wherever they take the twins, people stop to talk to them, admiring the little boys.

“Half a dozen Romans stops me: ‘They are twins?” “How many years do they have?” “where did you buy that stroller?” Half my Italian vocabulary has to do with baby gear.” 

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Doerr recounts he and his wife having to hire a babysitter and go through the agony of leaving their babies with a stranger; his twins start teething and are monstrous; the whole family gets colds and Owen’s is so bad they have to call out a paediatrician; Doerr’s wife collapses and has to go to hospital, where they find it is nigh impossible to communicate without being able to speak Italian; he tells us their lives in small, humorous and very poignant detail.

Doerr walks through the city every day, sometimes with the twins, sometimes by himself and the whole time he observes Rome and how Romans live.

Every time I turn around here, I witness a miracle: wisteria pours up walls; slices of sky show through the high arches of a bell tower … a church floor looks as soft as flesh; the skin from a ball of mozzarella cheese tastes rich enough to change my life.”

And so after a year in Rome, it is time for him and his family to go home.

I know nothing. I lived in Rome four seasons. I never made it through the gates between myself and the Italians. I cannot claim to have become, in even the smallest manner, Roman. And yet I can’t stop myself: a pen, a notebook, the urge to circumscribe experience.

He has circumscribed his year in Rome wonderfully, with nearly every sentence evoking an image of the eternal city; an account that has made me wish to get back to Rome again.

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The Girl in the Picture by Denise Chong

One of the most famous photographs in the world adorns the cover of this book – a young girl running, naked, her face contorted in pain and fear as the blast of napalm highlights the background.

Kim Phuc

This was Kim Phuc, a nine-year-old South Vietnamese girl whose village was bombed in a misplaced air attack, and this is the story of her life from before the attack until she’s living in Canada after defecting with her husband. It is also a story about the futility and horror of war, and the effects of war on countries, communities, families and individuals.

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Nick Ut, an Associated Press photographer, is the man who took the famous photo and, at the same time, was one of Kim’s rescuers. Ut, soldiers and another journalist stopped Kim as she ran past screaming – her skin was bubbling and peeling, chunks of flesh falling off. She radiated heat. At the request of Kim’s father, Ut stalled his deadline (despite having a gut feeling that his was a sensational photo) and took her to hospital, an act which  saved Kim’s life.

Kim remained in hospital for months before returning home, and going back to school. Her back was severely scarred from 3rd degree burns, and she was to live in hideous pain and with excruciating headaches for her whole life. She could have  slipped into anonymity if it hadn’t been for a German photographer who tracked her down and alerted her presence to the authorities in Hanoi. For years afterward, Kim was used for propaganda purposes by the government.

In 1986, she was sent to Cuba to study and further the ‘Communist cause’. She attended the University of Havana, where she met and married another Vietnamese student. In 1992, they defected to Canada where they have lived ever since. She reconnected with Nick Ut and has become a Christian, a faith which she says has helped her cope with bitterness and the pain.

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The above is merely a brief summary of Kim’s remarkable life, however the book is so much more than that. It also focuses on the Vietnam war in general. I found it interesting to read about the war from the Vietnamese side – in fact, to read about the war in general, as I don’t know much about it – and to see how that famous photo changed attitudes towards the war. Chong writes in a very accessible style and moves easily between the intimate details of Kim’s life and a portrait of Vietnamese society during and after the war. I highly recommend the book.

Postscript: In Miami in September 2015, Kim started a course of laser treatment that hopefully should smooth and soften the thick scar tissue that runs down her back and left arm, in the hope that it will help with the chronic pain that Kim lives with: Kim Phuc laser treatments

 

 

Behind the beautiful forevers by Katherine Boo

This is Katherine Boo’s first book, however she has worked as a journalist for many years and is currently a staff reporter at The New Yorker. Her reporting on disadvantaged communities over the years led to her being awarded a Pulitzer Prize, and thus she was perfectly poised to write about ‘Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity’ (the subtitle of the book).

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This beautifully written non-fiction book focuses on three families living in Annawadi, a slum settlement next to the luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport. Set in a time when India is starting to prosper financially, the inhabitants of Annawadi dare to hope that their lives might change for the better.

Abdul, one of the major characters, is an enterprising teenager who collects recyclable rubbish that the rich throw away, and sells it, making his family (the Husains) one of the ‘richer’ in the settlement. He is energetic, determined and an expert at sifting through rubbish; he dreams of a making a fortune.

His neighbour, Fatima, is envious of the money he earns. She is a cripple, called ‘One Leg’ by the community, however this disability does not stop her ferocious sexual appetite that her old husband can’t satisfy.

Asha, the third main character, works for a right-wing political party, and harbours ambitions of becoming a slumlord. She holds considerable sway over many of the inhabitants and takes advantage of her position through bribery and cunningness. Her daughter is Annawadi’s only college student, and Asha truly hopes her English teaching degree will earn them their way out of the slum.

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Annawadi slum

With the Husain’s relative fortune, Abdul decides to increase the size of their shack and, after the building affects Fatima’s hut, she rages against the family and, out of spite, douses herself with cooking oil and sets herself alight. She dies from her injuries and the Husain family  is blamed for inciting Fatima to commit suicide. Abdul, his sister, and his father are sent to prison. Over a period of years, they are beaten, starved and denied justice. By the end of the book, the sister and father have been released but Adbul’s case still has not been resolved.

Boo visited Annawadi on and off for over three years and, despite never learning the language, she obviously immersed herself in the culture and got to understand the people. One of the strengths of this book is that her voice never comes in to it, and thus it has a novel-like quality with a seemingly omniscient narrator, allowing us to get to know and empathise with the characters. Her incredible attention to detail allows the readers to get to know the slum and its inhabitants well. At the end of the book, she explains in an epilogue the motivation for writing the book and the process of reporting etc.

As a South African reader, I found there were many aspects of the book that were familiar such as the massive income disparities and the thriving underworld, crime and corruption that exist within shack settlements in this country. Unlike Boo, however, I have never spent any meaningful amount of time in a community of that sort, and as a result, this book was a complete eye-opener. Despite its subject matter, I didn’t find it to be a totally depressing book. I would highly recommend it, and look forward to Boo’s second book which is in the process of being written.

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Katherine Boo

PS: The unusual title comes from the wall that separates Annawadi from the affluent area near the airport. The wall is plastered with ads for an Italian tile company saying ‘beautiful forever …. beautiful forever …’

 

A few books I have read over the past year

I haven’t written on my blog for ages – life got in the way – but I have done tons of reading. When my mother was really ill, I found that I could only concentrate on short stories or magazines, and only recently have I started books again. However, here are a few that I have enjoyed over the past year. Only a few, as I can’t remember the titles of the others.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: at times confusing, this is a novel based on the question ‘what if?’. Ursula is the main character and Atkinson writes her life differently each couple of chapters. Such as, what if Ursula hadn’t got married, or what if this had happened to Ursula instead. It is brilliantly conceived, well written and Atkinson holds the plot together well.Image

Dominion by CJ Sansom: It wasn’t so much the quality of the writing that I liked in this book than the idea on which it was based – what if Germany had conquered England in World War II? A novel full of intrigue and spies, a real war story.

Ancient Life by John Banville: an exquisitely written book about a man remembering the illicit affair he had with his best friend’s mother when he was a teenager, and the same time dealing the memories of his daughter’s suicide. The first sentence says it all: “Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother.”

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: not nearly as good as I thought it would be, but it was gripping nonetheless.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green: this is one of those cross-over books that can be read by both teenagers and adults. It is a bit schmaltzy (about two dying teenagers), but pretty good in a tearful sort of way.

Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifke Brunt: a wonderful tale of love, art, family life and betrayal.Image

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver: This novel brought me back to viewing Kingsolver as one of my favourite authors. Based on the flight of the Monarch butterflies from Europe to Mexico, it has a fascinatingly ‘ordinary’ main character and a good depiction of a small town affected by an outside source.

Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey: Part fairy tale, part love story, part family tale, this was a wonderfully poignant novel, well worth a read.

The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton: This is not the sort of book I would usually read (sports biography) but I found it utterly fascinating. Tyler Hamilton rode with Lance Armstrong in his team for Tour de France and here exposes the extent to which doping was (and probably still is) going on. Mind-blowing.

The Tennis Partner by Abraham Verghese: he wrote Cutting for Stone and this book is in no way similar. One of his earlier books, it is a memoir about tennis, friendships, relationships and drugs. Not as well written as Cutting for Stone, but a fascinating read.

Thinking of a Hurricane by Martinique Stilwell: why this book has not received more press, I don’t know. When Martinique was young, her father decided that their family would sail around the world, so she, her twin brother and her parents got onto a sailing boat and set off. Her parents had never sailed before. Seven years later, Martinique got off the boat and went back to school in Alberton to fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor. A quite extraordinary tale – I don’t know how the family survived.Image

Heft by Liz Moore: A wonderful story about the unexpected relationship between a morbidly obese professor and a teenage American football student. Poignant but an easy read.

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver: although I disliked the main character (the brother) immensely, this was a fascinating look into the world of obese people and their relationships with those close to them. It is loosely based on Shriver’s own brother who died of obesity.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: Simply the best book I have read over the past year. It’s long, a bit too long, but worth the read. She is a phenomenally good writer.

Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri: beautifully evocative story about two brothers set in India and America.

Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty: it reminded me a bit of Gone Girl, in that I expected more from it, but it was a good gripping read nonetheless.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker: Alternating between American and China, this novel focuses on a woman going in search of her father who left when she was little. Her search takes her to China, where she discovers things about her father she never knew. An easy read, but rewarding.

Perfect by Rachel Joyce: I loved this book (despite it being called Perfect, because how does one live up to that title?). In 1972, two seconds were added to time and that made all the difference in 11-year-old Byron’s life – an accident occurs that affects him and his family’s life. I’m still not sure why it was titled Perfect.Image

Wave: Life and Memories after the Tsunami by Sonali Deraniyagala: only read this if you like reading about death and extreme tragedy. I do, and so I was fascinated by this book (in a bit of a ghoulish way, I suppose). A mother loses her children and husband in the tsunami and this memoir relates how she overcomes what has happened to her.

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini: I also felt this novel went on a bit too long, but it was beautiful and tragic, as his books always are.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier: As spooky and eerie as ever. I thoroughly enjoyed rereading it.

Short stories: I’ve read a variety of collections, mainly by Flannery O’ Connor, Grace Paley, Alice Munro, DH Lawrence, Raymond Carver. A great collection called Bloody Satisfied (local). This is How You Lose Her by Juno Diaz. Short stories are making a come back, at last. They are greatly under appreciated.Image

Dancer by Colum McCann

This is not a new book. It was published in 2003 and I picked it up mainly because the cover appealed to me (looks do count). I also loved McCann’s recent novel, Let the Whole World Spin, and thought I would give this one a try. This is a work of fiction about Rudolf Nureyev, which McCann wrote using documented facts about Nureyev’s life. So it’s about a real life, which made it more interesting, but even without that it would have been a great read.

 

 

 

English: portrait of Rudolph Nureyev
English: portrait of Rudolph Nureyev (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve always been fascinated by Nureyev, his exotic life, his talent and his unusual looks – and this novel exposes the reader to all of that, but with such skill that I could not even call this book a fictionalised biography. It is rather vignettes of Nureyev’s life, glimpses into his character, explosions of excitement, passionate descriptions of his dancing. McCann has used multiple narrators, often from the point of view of minor characters, in different settings and often I didn’t know who the narrator was until I read deeper into the chapter. Chapters vary in length, chop and change, keep the reader guessing and fascinated.

 

 

 

Nureyev does not come across as a pleasant character – he’s vain, disdainful, impetuous, rude, inconsiderate, yet dancing is everything to him, it’s that which gives his life meaning. Fascinating insights are given about his life – how he used the same shoe maker all the time as a dancer and how he kept all his old shoes; how he was gay at a time when it was illegal and he had to search for illicit sex; just how debauched his life was – it’s a miracle to me that he managed to dance like he did. His friendship with Margot Fonteyn was only a friendship, they weren’t lovers, but they merged on stage to make the perfect dancing couple. How he mingled with many famous people, how his fans adored him, how rich he became.

 

The cleverness of using different narrators is that Nureyev’s life is exposed to us in shards, so for example, McCann doesn’t tell us that Nureyev has defected – we just gather it from his family in Russia who are having to deal with the recriminations. We get to know him through the eyes of two of his lovers, and through his housekeeper.

Nureyev died of Aids in 1993, although this was not cited at the time as the cause of death.

Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in La Bayadère.

 

 

If you like Nureyev, I would recommend this for an unusual insight into his life. If you like Colum McCann’s writing, I would also recommend it and, in fact, I think it is a good read all round. For writers, it is a useful reference for examining the effectiveness of using multiple narrators.