From established authors to a bookseller's debut novel, the Man Booker Prize 2017 longlist comprises 13 novels across a variety of genres. Read extracts from each of the longlisted novels below.
4321 by Paul Auster (Faber & Faber)
According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, traveled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century. While waiting to be interviewed by an immigration official at Ellis Island, he struck up a conversation with a fellow Russian Jew. The man said to him: Forget the name Reznikoff. It won’t do you any good here. You need an American name for your new life in America, something with a good American ring to it. Since English was still an alien tongue to Isaac Reznikoff in 1900, he asked his older, more experienced compatriot for a suggestion. Tell them you’re Rockefeller, the man said. You can’t go wrong with that. An hour passed, then another hour, and by the time the nineteen-year-old Reznikoff sat down to be questioned by the immigration official, he had forgotten the name the man had told him to give. Your name? the official asked. Slapping his head in frustration, the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.
He had a hard time of it, especially in the beginning, but even after it was no longer the beginning, nothing ever went as he had imagined it would in his adopted country. It was true that he managed to find a wife for himself just after his twenty-sixth birthday, and it was also true that this wife, Fanny, née Grossman, bore him three robust and healthy sons, but life in America remained a struggle for Ferguson’s grandfather from the day he walked off the boat until the night of March 7, 1923, when he met an early, unexpected death at the age of forty-two - gunned down in a holdup at the leather-goods warehouse in Chicago where he had been employed as a night watchman.
No photographs survive of him, but by all accounts he was a large man with a strong back and enormous hands, uneducated, unskilled, the quintessential greenhorn know-nothing. On his first afternoon in New York, he chanced upon a street peddler hawking the reddest, roundest, most perfect apples he had ever seen. Unable to resist, he bought one and eagerly bit into it. Instead of the sweetness he had been anticipating, the taste was bitter and strange. Even worse, the apple was sickeningly soft, and once his teeth had pierced the skin, the insides of the fruit came pouring down the front of his coat in a shower of pale red liquid dotted with scores of pellet-like seeds. Such was his first taste of the New World, his first, never-to-be-forgotten encounter with a Jersey tomato.
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Faber & Faber)
The point is we living like a family. John Cole know he was born in December or seems to remember that month and maybe I remember I was born in June and Winona says she was born during the Full Buck Moon. Anyhow we roll all that into one and on the first of May we have assigned our birthday for the three of us. We say Winona is nine years old and John Cole has settled on twenty-nine. So that must make me twenty-six. Something along those lines. Point is, whatever ages we be, we’re young. John Cole is the best-looking man in Christendom and this is his heyday. Winona is sure the prettiest little daughter ever man had. Goddamned beautiful black hair. Blue eyes like a mackerel’s blue back. Or a duck’s wing feathers. Sweet little face cool as a melon when you hold it in your hands and kiss her forehead. God knows what stories she seen and been part in. Savage murder for sure because we caused it. Walked through the carnage and the slaughter of her own. You could expect a child that has seen all that to wake in the night sweat- ing and she does. Then John Cole is obliged to hold her trembling form against him and soothe her with lullabies. Well he only knows one and he does that over and over. He holds her softly and sings her the lullaby. Where he got that no man knows not even hisself. Like a stray bird from some distant country. Then he lies on her bed and she pushes in tight against him like you might imagine bear cubs do in the winter hide or maybe even wolves. Tight in, like John Cole was that bit of safety she is trying to reach. A harbour. Then her breathing slowly lengthens and then she is snoring a little. Time to come back to bed and in the darkness or the helpful dim of the candle he looks at me and nods his head. Got her sleeping, he says. You sure do, I say.
Not much more than that needed to make men happy.
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
But then, in the middle of March, the temperature shot up to fifty and miraculously stayed there. Within a couple of weeks, the south slope drifts had eroded to stalagmite pillars. A wet sheen appeared across the surface of the ice, and in the late afternoons you could hear the whole lake pop and zing. Cracks appeared. It was warm enough to gather wood from the pile without mittens, to unfreeze the latches on the dogs’ chains with the heat of your fingers. Across the lake, the family set up a telescope on their deck—long and spear-like, pointed to the heavens. Beneath the tripod was a footstool where the child sometimes stood in the evenings clasping the eyepiece to his face with two mittened hands. He wore a candy-cane scarf and a red pom-pom hat. Every time the wind started up, his pom bounced on the air like a bobber.
Sometimes his mother came out in a ski cap and readjusted the tripod, raising the tube and peering through it herself. She rested one gloved hand on the boy’s head. Then, as the evening turned its last shade, I watched them go inside again. I watched them unwind the scarves from their necks. I watched them cud- dle the cats, wash their fingers in the tap, heat water in a kettle. They didn’t seem to have blinds on their enormous triangular windows. I saw their dinner like it was done just for me. I sat on the roof of our shed with my dad’s Bushnell binoculars, turning the sticky barrels, warming my hands against my neck. The kid sat in his cushioned chair on his knees, rocking. The mother barely sat at all. She went to the counter and back, she sliced things on the boy’s plate. She made wedges of green, triangles of yellow, discs of something brown. She blew on his soup. She grinned when he grinned. I could see their teeth across the lake. The father seemed to have disappeared. Where had he gone?
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her. For many days. His name was Saeed and her name was Nadia and he had a beard, not a full beard, more a studiously maintained stubble, and she was always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a flowing black robe. Back then people continued to enjoy the luxury of wearing more or less what they wanted to wear, clothing and hair wise, within certain bounds of course, and so these choices meant something.
It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class – in this case an evening class on corporate identity and product branding – but that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.
Not long after noticing this, Saeed spoke to Nadia for the first time. Their city had yet to experience any major fighting, just some shootings and the odd car bombing, felt in one’s chest cavity as a subsonic vibration like those emitted by large loudspeakers at music concerts, and Saeed and Nadia had packed up their books and were leaving class.
In the stairwell he turned to her and said, ‘Listen, would you like to have a coffee,’ and after a brief pause added, to make it seem less forward, given her conservative attire, ‘in the cafeteria?’
Nadia looked him in the eye. ‘You don’t say your evening prayers?’ she asked.
Saeed conjured up his most endearing grin. ‘Not always. Sadly.’
Her expression did not change.
So he persevered, clinging to his grin with the mounting desperation of a doomed rock climber:
‘I think it’s personal. Each of us has his own way. Or . . . her own way. Nobody’s perfect. And, in any case –’
She interrupted him. ‘I don’t pray,’ she said.
She continued to gaze at him steadily.
Then she said, ‘Maybe another time.’
He watched as she walked out to the student parking area and there, instead of covering her head with a black cloth, as he expected, she donned a black motorcycle helmet that had been locked to a scuffed‑up hundred-ish cc trail bike, snapped down her visor, straddled her ride, and rode off, disappearing with a controlled rumble into the gathering dusk.
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Canongate)
when the idea has come a patient arc through my life I now understood that if I saw the dismantled tractor as the beginning of the world, the chaotic genesis which drew it together and assembled it from disparate parts, then this wind turbine was its end, a destiny it had been forced to give up on, a dream of itself shelved or aborted or miscarried, an old idea which echoed
a radio programme I listened to a while back in which a panel of experts discussed the future of these wind turbines, weighing their environmental impact against whatever their energy efficiency was, the argument going back and forth between various critics and advocates but making little real headway until the topic was turned over to the listeners who by and large, one after another, echoed what had already been said except for one woman, whose hesitant voice cut across the strident tones of the debate when she phoned in to say that
she was living under a hill planted with several of these turbines and whatever about their environmental impact or their worth as a source of clean energy she herself had developed something of a spiritual regard for them as she had only to stand at her back door and look up towards them for a few minutes every day and she could easily believe there was something sacred about them because, grouped and silhouetted against the horizon, their blades stark against the sky, were they not vividly evocative of Christ’s end on Calvary, crucified without honour, thieves to the left and right of him and, when turning, weren’t they almost prayerful, the hum of their dynamo and their ceaseless rhythm so freely generated by the breeze which was of course nothing less than God’s breath across the land, their turning so evocative of all those Buddhist prayer wheels she had met during her years of travel in India and
Tibet and it was surely the case also that only machines built to so large a scale and of such pristine alloys could bridge the span between heaven and earth with their song on our account and
was she alone in these thoughts she wondered or
did anyone else have similar feelings about these machines, this technology
which of course they didn’t, or if they did they chose that moment to keep it to themselves so that after a few garbled comments with which the radio host laboured hopelessly to place some practical or common sense on her remarks, her contribution to the debate was excused as a quasi-artistic outburst, more in the nature of mystical reverie than reasoned argument, definitely idiosyncratic in a way which allowed it to be harmlessly set aside after a few more words of praise were levied on its heartfelt eloquence and the obvious depth of the woman’s feelings
something similar to what I felt that day in the middle of Louisburgh, standing on the sidewalk watching the dismantled turbine being hauled through the main street on its bier without fanfare or procession, the whole thing so lonely and monumental it might well have been God himself or some essential aspect of him being hauled through our little village on the edge of the world, death or some massive redundancy finally caught up with him so that now he was being carted off to some final interment or breaker’s yard beyond our jurisdiction, some place where the gods were dismantled and broken down for parts or disposed of completely, possibly loaded onto a barge and towed offshore by a salvage tug, out beyond the continental shelf to be weighed down and sunk in some mid-Atlantic abyssal, down between tectonic plates, all these redundant gods lying crushed and frozen in the blackest depths with no surface
marker to show where they lie, out of sight and out of mind, among those things in the world that are
in some way or other
Solar Bones is published by Canongate Books in the UK (£8.99).
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (4th Estate)
They gathered at the car park in the hour before dawn and waited to be told what to do. It was cold and there was little conversation. There were questions that weren’t being asked. The missing girl’s name was Rebecca Shaw. When last seen she’d been wearing a white hooded top. A mist hung low across the moor and the ground was frozen hard. They were given instructions and then they moved off, their boots crunching on the stiffened ground and their tracks fading behind them as the heather sprang back into shape. She was five feet tall, with dark-blonde hair. She had been missing for hours. They kept their eyes down and they didn’t speak and they wondered what they might find. The only sounds were footsteps and dogs barking along the road and faintly a helicopter from the reservoirs. The helicopter had been out all night and found nothing, its searchlight skimming across the heather and surging brown streams. Jackson’s sheep had taken the fear and scattered through a broken gate, and he’d been up all hours bringing them back. The mountain-rescue teams and the cave teams and the police had found nothing, and at midnight a search had been called. It hadn’t taken much to raise the volunteers. Half the village was out already, talking about what could have happened. This was no time of year to have gone up on the hill, it was said. Some of the people who come this way don’t know how sharply the weather can turn. How quickly darkness falls. Some of them don’t seem to know there are places a mobile phone won’t work. The girl’s family had come up for the New Year, and were staying in one of the barn conversions at the Hunter place. They’d come running into the village at dusk, shouting. It was a cold night to have been out on the hill. She’s likely just hiding, people said. She’ll be down in a clough. Turned her ankle. She’ll be aiming to give her parents a fright. There was a lot of this. People just wanted to open their mouths and talk, and they didn’t much mind what came out. By first light the mist had cleared. From the top of the moor when people turned they could see the village: the beech wood and the allotments, the church tower and the cricket ground, the river and the quarry and the cement works by the main road into town. There was plenty of ground to cover, and so many places she could be. They moved on. There was an occasional flash of light from the traffic on the motorway, just visible along the horizon. The reservoirs were a flat metallic grey. A thick band of rain was coming in. The ground was softer now, the oily brown water seeping up around their boots. A news helicopter flew low along the line of volunteers. It was a job not to look up and wave.
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (JM Originals)
We arrived in summer when the landscape was in full bloom and the days were long and hot and the light was soft. I roamed shirtless and sweated cleanly and enjoyed the hug of the thick air. In those months I picked up freckles on my bony shoulders and the sun set slowly and the evenings were pewter before they were black, before the mornings seeped through again. Rabbits gambolled in the fields and when we were lucky, when the wind was still and a veil settled on the hills, we saw a hare.
Farmers shot vermin and we trapped rabbits for food. But not the hare. Not my hare. A dam, she lived with her drove in a nest in the shadow of the tracks. She was hardened to the passing of the trains and when I saw her I saw her alone as if she had crept out of the nest unseen and unheard. It was a rare thing for creatures of her kind to leave their young in summer and run through the fields. She was searching. Searching for food or for a mate. She searched as if she were a hunting animal, as if she were a hare who had thought again and decided not to be prey but rather to run and to hunt, as if she were a hare who found herself chased one day by a fox and stopped suddenly and turned and chased back.
Whatever the reason, she was unlike any other. When she darted I could barely see her but when she stopped for a moment she was the stillest thing for miles around. Stiller than the oaks and pines. Stiller even than the rocks and pylons. Stiller than the railway tracks. It was as if she had grabbed hold of the earth and pinned it down with her at its centre, and even the quietest, most benign landmarks spun outrageously around, while all of it, the whole scene, was suckered in by her exaggerated, globular, amber eye.
And if the hare was made of myths then so too was the land at which she scratched. Now pocked with clutches of trees, once the whole county had been woodland and the ghosts of the ancient forest could be marked when the wind blew. The soil was alive with ruptured stories that cascaded and rotted then found form once more and pushed up through the undergrowth and back into our lives. Tales of green men peering from thickets with foliate faces and legs of gnarled timber. The calls of half-starved hounds rushing and panting as they snatched at charging quarry. Robyn Hode and his pack of scrawny vagrants, whistling and wrestling and feasting as freely as the birds whose plumes they stole. An ancient forest ran in a grand strip from north to south. Boars and bears and wolves. Does, harts, stags. Miles of underground fungi. Snowdrops, bluebells, primroses. The trees had long since given way to crops and pasture and roads and houses and railway tracks and little copses, like ours, were all that was left.
Daddy and Cathy and I lived in a small house that Daddy built with materials from the land here about. He chose for us a small ash copse two fields from the east coast main line, far enough not to be seen, close enough to know the trains well. We heard them often enough: the hum and ring of the passenger trains, the choke and gulp of the freight, passing by with their cargo tucked behind in painted metal tanks. They had timetables and intervals of their own, drawing growth rings around our house with each journey, ringing past us like prayer chimes. The long, indigo Adelantes and Pendolinos that streaked from London to Edinburgh. The smaller trains that bore more years, with rust on their rattling pantographs. Old carthorse-trains chugging up to the knacker, they moved too slowly for the younger tracks and slipped on the hot-rolled steel like old men on ice.
On the day we arrived an old squaddy drove up the hill in an articulated lorry filled with cracked and discarded stone from an abandoned builders’ yard. The squaddy let Daddy do most of the unloading while he sat on a freshly cut log and smoked cigarette after cigarette that Cathy rolled from her own tobacco and papers. He watched her closely as she spun them with her fingers and tipped tongue over teeth to lick the seal. He looked at her right thigh as she rested the tobacco pouch upon it and more than once leaned over to pick it up, brushing his hand against her as he did so, then pretending to read the text on the packet. He offered to light her cigarettes for her each time. He held out the flame eagerly and took offence, like a child, when she continued to light them herself. He could not see that she was scowling the whole time and frowning at her hands as she did his work. He was not a man who could look and see and under- stand faces well enough to tell. He was not one of those who know what eyes and lips mean or who can imagine that a pretty face might not be closed around pretty thoughts.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
She lived in the graveyard like a tree. At dawn she saw the crows off and welcomed the bats home. At dusk she did the opposite. Between shifts she conferred with the ghosts of vultures that loomed in her high branches. She felt the gentle grip of their talons like an ache in an amputated limb. She gathered they weren’t altogether unhappy at having excused themselves and exited from the story.
When she first moved in, she endured months of casual cruelty like a tree would – without flinching. She didn’t turn to see which small boy had thrown a stone at her, didn’t crane her neck to read the insults scratched into her bark. When people called her names – clown without a circus, queen without a palace – she let the hurt blow through her branches like a breeze and used the music of her rustling leaves as balm to ease the pain.
It was only after Ziauddin, the blind imam who had once led the prayers in the Fatehpuri Masjid, befriended her and began to visit her that the neighbourhood decided it was time to leave her in peace.
Long ago a man who knew English told her that her name written backwards (in English) spelled Majnu. In the English version of the story of Laila and Majnu, he said, Majnu was called Romeo and Laila was Juliet. She found that hilarious. ‘You mean I’ve made a khichdi of their story?’ she asked. ‘What will they do when they find that Laila may actually be Majnu and Romi was really Juli?’ The next time he saw her, the Man Who Knew English said he’d made a mistake. Her name spelled backwards would be Mujna, which wasn’t a name and meant nothing at all. To this she said, ‘It doesn’t matter. I’m all of them, I’m Romi and Juli, I’m Laila and Majnu. And Mujna, why not? Who says my name is Anjum? I’m not Anjum, I’m Anjuman. I’m a mehfil, I’m a gathering.
Of everybody and nobody, of everything and nothing. Is there anyone else you would like to invite? Everyone’s invited.’
The Man Who Knew English said it was clever of her to come up with that one. He said he’d never have thought of it himself. She said, ‘How could you have, with your standard of Urdu? What d’you think? English makes you clever automatically?’ He laughed. She laughed at his laugh. They shared a filter cigarette. He complained that Wills Navy Cut cigarettes were short and stumpy and simply not worth the price. She said she preferred them any day to Four Square or the very manly Red & White.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (Bloomsbury)
Early in my youth I found I had a certain predilection which, to me, felt quite natural and even wonderful, but to others - my father, mother, brothers, friends, teachers, clergy, grandparents - my predilection did not seem natural or wonderful at all, but perverse and shameful, and hence I suffered: must I deny my predilection, and marry, and doom myself to a certain, shall we say, dearth of fulfillment? I wished to be happy (as I believe all wish to be happy), and so undertook an innocent - well, a rather innocent - friendship with a fellow in my school. But we soon saw that there was no hope for us, and so (to race past a few details, and stops-and-starts, and fresh beginnings, and heartfelt resolutions, and betrayals of those resolutions, there, in one corner of the, ah, car- riage house, and so on), one afternoon, a day or so after a particularly frank talk, in which Gilbert stated his intention to henceforth “live correctly,” I took a butcher knife to my room and, after writing a note to my parents (I am sorry, was the gist), and another to him (I have loved, and therefore depart fulfilled), I slit my wrists rather savagely over a porcelain tub.
Feeling nauseous at the quantity of blood and its sudden percussive redness against the whiteness of the tub, I settled myself woozily down on the floor, at which time I - well, it is a little embarrassing, but let me just say it: I changed my mind. Only then (nearly out the door, so to speak) did I realize how unspeakably beautiful all of this was, how precisely engineered for our pleasure, and saw that I was on the brink of squandering a wondrous gift, the gift of being allowed, every day, to wander this vast sensual paradise, this grand marketplace lovingly stocked with every sublime thing: swarms of insects dancing in slantrays of August sun; a trio of black horses standing hock-deep and head- to-head in a field of snow; a waft of beef broth arriving breeze-borne from an orange-hued window on a chill autumn-
roger bevins iii
Am I - am I doing it again?
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Take a breath. All is well.
I believe you are somewhat alarming our new arrival.
Many apologies, young sir. I only meant, in my way, to welcome you.
roger bevins iii
Feeling “nauseous at the quantity of blood,” you “settled yourself woozily down on the floor” and “changed your mind.”
Feeling nauseous at the quantity of blood and its sudden percussive redness against the whiteness of the tub, I settled myself woozily down on the floor. At which time I changed my mind.
Knowing that my only hope was to be found by one of the servants, I stumbled to the stairs and threw myself down. From there, I managed to crawl into the kitchen-
Which is where I remain.
I am waiting to be discovered (having come to rest on the floor, head against the stove, upended chair nearby, sliver of an orange peel against my cheek), so that I may be revived, and rise, and clean up the awful mess I have made (Mother will not be pleased), and go outside, into that beautiful world, a new and more courageous man, and begin to live! Will I follow my predilection? I will! With gusto! Having come so close to losing everything, I am freed now of all fear, hesitation, and timidity, and, once revived, intend to devoutly wander the earth, imbibing, smell- ing, sampling, loving whomever I please; touching, tasting, standing very still among the beautiful things of this world, such as, for example: a sleeping dog dream-kicking in a tree-shade triangle; a sugar pyramid upon a blackwood tabletop being rearranged grain-by-grain by an indis- cernible draft; a cloud passing ship-like above a rounded green hill, atop which a line of colored shirts energetically dance in the wind, while down below in town, a purple-blue day unfolds (the muse of spring in- carnate), each moist-grassed, flower-pierced yard gone positively mad with-
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“Bevins” had several sets of eyes All darting to and fro Several noses All sniffing His hands (he had multiple sets of hands, or else his hands were so quick they seemed to be many) struck this way and that, picking things up, bringing them to his face with a most inquisitive
Little bit scary
In telling his story he had grown so many extra eyes and noses and hands that his body all but vanished Eyes like grapes on a vine Hands feeling the eyes Noses smelling the hands
Slashes on every one of the wrists.
The newcomer sat on the roof of his sick-house, staring down in wonder at Mr. Bevins.
Occasionally stealing an amazed glance over at you, sir. At your considerable-
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Come now, no need to speak of-
The other man (the one hit by a beam) Quite naked Member swollen to the size of Could not take my eyes off
It bounced as he
Body like a dumpling Broad flat nose like a sheep’s
Quite naked indeed
Awful dent in the head How could he walk around and talk withsuch a nasty-
Presently we found ourselves joined by the Reverend Everly Thomas.
Who arrived, as he always arrives, at a hobbling sprint, eyebrows arched high, looking behind himself anxiously, hair sticking straight up, mouth in a perfect O of terror. And yet spoke, as he always speaks, with the utmost calmness and good sense.
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A newcomer? said the Reverend.
I believe we have the honor of addressing a Mr. Carroll, Mr. Bevins said.
The lad only looked at us blankly.
The newcomer was a boy of some ten or eleven years. A handsome little fellow, blinking and gazing cautiously about him.
the reverend everly thomas
Resembling a fish who, having washed ashore, lies immobile and alert, acutely aware of its vulnerability.
Putting me in mind of a nephew of mine who had once fallen through the ice of the river and come home chilled to the bone. Fearful of his punishment, he had not the nerve to step inside; I found him leaning against the door for what warmth he could gain in that way, stunned, guilty, nearly insensate with cold.
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No doubt you are feeling a certain pull? Mr. Vollman said. An urge? To go? Somewhere? More comfortable?
I feel I am to wait, the boy said.
It speaks! said Mr. Bevins.
the reverend everly thomas
Wait for what? Mr. Sheep-Dumpling said.
My mother, I said. My father. They will come shortly. To collect me Mr. Sheep-Dumpling shook his head sadly His member also shook
They may come, said the many-eyed man. But I doubt they will collect you.
Then all three laughed With much clapping of the many-eyed man’s many hands And waggling of Mr. Sheep-Dumpling’s swollen member Even the Reverend laughed Though, laughing, he still looked frightened
In any event, they will not stay long, said Mr. Sheep-Dumpling.
All the while wishing themselves elsewhere, said the many-eyed man.
Thinking only of lunch, said the Reverend.
It is soon to be spring The Christmas toys barely played with I have a glass soldier whose head can turn The epaulettes interchangeable Soon flowers will bloom Lawrence from the garden shed will give us each a cup of seeds
I am to wait I said
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury)
Isma was going to miss her flight. The ticket wouldn’t be refunded because the airline took no responsibility for passengers who arrived at the airport three hours ahead of the departure time and were escorted to an interrogation room. She had expected the interrogation, but not the hours of waiting that would precede it, nor that it would feel so humiliating to have the contents of her suitcase inspected. She’d made sure not to pack anything that would invite comment or questions - no Quran, no family pictures, no books on her areas of academic interest - but, even so, the officer took hold of every item of isma’s clothing and ran it between her thumb and fingers, not so much searching for hidden pockets as judging the quality of the material. Finally she reached for the designer-label down jacket isma had folded over a chair back when she entered and held it up, one hand pinching each shoulder.
‘This isn’t yours,’ she said, and Isma was sure she didn’t mean because it’s at least a size too large but rather it’s too nice for someone like you.
‘i used to work at a dry-cleaning shop. The woman who brought this in said she didn’t want it when we couldn’t get rid of the stain.’ She pointed to the greasemark on the pocket.
‘Does the manager know you took it?’
‘I was the manager.’
‘You were the manager of a dry-cleaning shop and now you’re on your way to a PhD programme in sociology in Amherst, Massachusetts?’
‘And how did that happen?’
‘My siblings and I were orphaned just after I finished uni. They were twelve years old - twins. I took the first job I could find. Now they’ve grown up; I can go back to my life.’
‘You’re going back to your life...in Amherst, Massachusetts.’
‘I meant the academic life. My former tutor from LSE teaches in Amherst now, at the university there. Her name is Hira Shah. You can call her. I’ll be staying with her when I arrive, until I find a place of my own.’
‘No. I don’t know. Sorry, do you mean her place or the place of my own? She lives in Northampton - that’s close to Amherst. I’ll look all around the area for what- ever suits me best. So it might be amherst, but it might not. There are some real-estate listings on my phone. Which you have.’ She stopped herself. The official was doing that thing which she’d encountered before in security personnel - staying quiet when you answered their question in a straightforward manner, which made you think you had to say more. and the more you said the more guilty you sounded.
The woman dropped the jacket into the jumble of clothes and shoes and told Isma to wait.
That had been a while ago. The plane would be boarding now. Isma looked over at the suitcase. She’d repacked when the woman left the room, and spent the time since worrying if doing that without permission constituted an offence. Should she empty the clothes out into a haphazard pile, or would that make things even worse? She stood up, unzipped the suitcase and flipped it open so its contents were visible.
A man entered the office, carrying Isma’s passport, laptop and phone. She allowed herself to hope, but he sat down, gestured for her to do the same, and placed a voice recorder between them.
‘Do you consider yourself British?’ the man said.
‘I am British.’
‘But do you consider yourself British?’
‘I’ve lived here all my life.’ She meant there was no other country of which she could feel herself a part, but the words came out sounding evasive.
The interrogation continued for nearly two hours. He wanted to know her thoughts on Shias, homosexuals, the Queen, democracy, the Great British Bake Off, the invasion of Iraq, Israel, suicide bombers, dating websites. After that early slip regarding her Britishness, she settled into the manner that she’d practised with Aneeka playing the role of the interrogating officer, Isma responding to her sister as though she was a customer of dubious political opinions whose business she didn’t want to lose by voicing strenuously opposing views but to whom she didn’t see the need to lie, either. (‘When people talk about the enmity between Shias and Sunni it usually centres around some political imbalance of power, such as in Iraq or Syria - as a Brit, I don’t distinguish between one Muslim and another.’ ‘Occupying other people’s territory generally causes more problems than it solves’ - this served for both Iraq and Israel. ‘Killing civilians is sinful - that’s equally true if the manner of killing is a suicide bombing or aerial bombardments or drone strikes.’ There were long intervals of silence between each answer and the next question as the man clicked keys on her laptop, examining her browser history. He knew that she was interested in the marital status of an actor from a popular TV series; that wearing a hijab didn’t stop her from buying expensive products to tame her frizzy hair; that she had searched for ‘how to make small talk with Americans’.
‘You know you don’t have to be so compliant about everything,’ Aneeka had said during the role playing. Her sister, not quite nineteen, with her law-student brain, who knew everything about her rights and nothing about the fragility of her place in the world. ‘For instance, if they ask you about the Queen, just say, “as an Asian I have to admire her colour palette.” It’s important to show at least a tiny bit of contempt for the whole process.’ Instead, Isma had responded, ‘I greatly admire Her Majesty’s commitment to her role.’ But there had been comfort in hearing her sister’s alternative answers in her head, her Ha! of triumph when the official asked a question she’d anticipated and that Isma had dismissed, such as the Great British Bake Off one. Well, if they didn’t let her board this plane - or any one after this - she would go home to Aneeka, which is what half Isma’s heart knew it should do in any case. How much of Aneeka’s heart wanted that was a hard question to answer - she’d been so adamant that Isma not change her plans for America, and whether this was selflessness or a wish to be left alone was something even Aneeka herself didn’t seem to know. a tiny flicker in Isma’s brain signalled a thought about Parvaiz that was trying to surface, before it was submerged by the strength of her refusal ever to think about him again.
Eventually, the door opened again and the woman official walked in. Perhaps she would be the one to ask the family questions - the ones most difficult to answer, the most fraught when she’d prepared with her sister.
‘Sorry about that,’ the woman said, unconvincingly. ‘Just had to wait for America to wake up and confirm some details about your student visa. All checked out. Here.’ She handed a stiff rectangle of paper to Isma, with an air of magnanimity. It was the boarding pass for the plane she’d already missed.
Isma stood up, unsteady because of the pins and needles in her feet, which she’d been afraid to shake off in case she accidentally kicked the man across the desk from her. as she wheeled her luggage out she thanked the woman whose thumbprints were on her underwear, not allowing even a shade of sarcasm to enter her voice.
The cold bit down on every exposed piece of skin before cutting through the layers of clothing. Isma opened her mouth and tilted her head back, breathing in the lip-numbing, teeth-aching air. Crusted snow lay all about, glinting in the lights of the terminal. leaving her suitcase with Dr Hira Shah, who had driven two hours across massachusetts to meet her at Logan airport, she walked over to a mound of snow at the edge of the parking lot, took off her gloves, and pressed her fingertips down on it. At first it resisted, but then it gave way, and her fingers burrowed into the softer layers beneath. She licked snow out of her palm, relieving the dryness of her mouth. The woman in customer services at Heathrow - a Muslim - had found her a place on the next flight out, without charge; she had spent the whole journey worrying about the interrogation awaiting her in Boston, certain they would detain her or put her on a plane back to London. But the immigration official had asked only where she was going to study, said something she didn’t follow but tried to look interested in regarding the university basketball team, and waved her through. And then, as she walked out of the arrivals area there was Dr Shah, mentor and saviour, unchanged since Isma’s undergraduate days except for a few silver strands threaded through her cropped dark hair. Seeing her raise a hand in welcome, Isma understood how it might have felt in another age to step out on deck and see the outstretched arm of the Statue of Liberty and know you had made it, you were going to be all right.
While there was still some feeling in her gloveless hands she typed a message into her phone: Arrived safely. Through security – no problems. Dr Shah here. How things with you?
Her sister wrote back: Fine, now I know they’ve let you through, Aunty Naseem can stop praying and I can stop pacing.
Stop worrying about me. Go live your life now - I really want you to.
The parking lot with large, confident vehicles; the broad avenues beyond; the lights gleaming everywhere, their brightness multiplied by reflecting surfaces of glass and snow. Here there was swagger and certainty and - on this New Year’s Day of 2015 - a promise of new beginnings.
Isma awoke into light to see two figures leaving the sky and falling towards her, bright colour billowing above their heads.
Autumn by Ali Smith
It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.
Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart,
always have, always will, it’s in their nature. So an
old old man washes up on a shore. He looks like a
punctured football with its stitching split, the leather
kind that people kicked a hundred years ago. The
sea’s been rough. It has taken the shirt off his back;
naked as the day I was born are the words in the head
he moves on its neck, but it hurts to. So try not to
move the head. What’s this in his mouth, grit? it’s
sand, it’s under his tongue, he can feel it, he can hear it
grinding when his teeth move against each other,
singing its sand-
I’m ground so small, but in the
end I’m all, I’m softer if I’m underneath you when you
fall, in sun I glitter, wind heaps me over litter, put a
message in a bottle, throw the bottle in the sea, the
bottle’s made of me, I’m the hardest grain to harvest
the words for the song trickle away. He is tired.
The sand in his mouth and his eyes is the last of the
grains in the neck of the sandglass.
Daniel Gluck, your luck’s run out at last.
He prises open one stuck eye. But –
Daniel sits up on the sand and the stones
– is this it? really? this? is death?
He shades his eyes. Very bright.
Sunlit. Terribly cold, though.
He is on a sandy stony strand, the wind distinctly
harsh, the sun out, yes, but no heat off it. Naked,
too. No wonder he’s cold. He looks down and
sees that his body’s still the old body, the ruined
He’d imagined death would distil a person, strip
the rotting rot away till everything was light as a
Seems the self you get left with on the shore, in
the end, is the self that you were when you went.
If I’d known, Daniel thinks, I’d have made sure to
go at twenty, twenty five.
Only the good.
Or perhaps (he thinks, one hand shielding his
face so if anyone can see him no one will be
offended by him picking out what’s in the lining of
his nose, or giving it a look to see what it is – it’s
sand, beautiful the detail, the different array of
colours of even the pulverized world, then he rubs it
away off his fingertips) this is my self distilled. If so
then death’s a sorry disappointment.
Thank you for having me, death. Please excuse
me, must get back to it, life.
He stands up. It doesn’t hurt, not so much, to.
Home. Which way?
He turns a half
Sea, shoreline, sand,
stones. Tall grass, dunes. Flatland behind the
dunes. Trees past the flatland, a line of woods, all
the way back round to the sea again.
The sea is strange and calm.
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
It was the first day of my humiliation. Put on a plane, sent back home, to England, set up with a temporary rental in St John’s Wood. The flat was on the eighth floor, the windows looked over the cricket ground. It had been chosen, I think, because of the doorman, who blocked all enquiries. I stayed indoors. The phone on the kitchen wall rang and rang, but I was warned not to answer it and to keep my own phone switched off. I watched the cricket being played, a game I don’t understand, it offered no real distraction, but still it was better than looking at the interior of that apartment, a luxury condo, in which everything had been designed to be perfectly neutral, with all significant corners rounded, like an iPhone. When the cricket finished I stared at the sleek coffee machine embedded in the wall, and at two photos of the Buddha – one a brass Buddha, the other wood – and at a photo of an elephant kneeling next to a little Indian boy, who was also kneeling. The rooms were tasteful and grey, linked by a pristine hallway of tan wool cord. I stared at the ridges in the cord.
Two days passed like that. On the third day, the doorman called up and said the lobby was clear. I looked at my phone, it was sitting on the counter in airplane mode. I had been offline for seventy- two hours and can remember feeling that this should be counted among the great examples of personal stoicism and moral endurance of our times. I put on my jacket and went downstairs. In the lobby I met the doorman. He took the opportunity to complain bitterly (‘You’ve no idea what it’s been like down here, past few days – Piccadilly-bloody-Circus!’) although it was clear that he was also conflicted, even a little disappointed: it was a shame for him that the fuss had died down – he had felt very important for forty-eight hours. He told me proudly of telling several people to ‘buck up their ideas’, of letting such and such a person know that if they thought they were getting past him ‘they had another think coming’. I leant against his desk and listened to him talk. I had been out of England long enough that many simple colloquial British phrases now sounded exotic to me, almost nonsensical. I asked him if he thought there would be more people that evening and he said he thought not, there hadn’t been anyone since yesterday. I wanted to know if it was safe to have an overnight visitor. ‘I don’t see any problem,’ he said, with a tone that made me feel my question was ridiculous. ‘There’s always the back door.’ He sighed, and at the same moment a woman stopped to ask him if he could receive her dry cleaning as she was going out. She had a rude, impatient manner and rather than look at him as she spoke she stared at a calendar on his desk, a grey block with a digital screen, which informed whoever was standing in front of it exactly what moment they were in to the second. It was the twenty-fifth of the month of October, in the year two thousand and eight, and the time was twelve thirty-six and twenty-three seconds. I turned to leave; the doorman dealt with the woman and hurried out from behind his desk to open the front door for me. He asked me where I was going; I said I didn’t know. I walked out into the city.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Fleet)
The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.
This was her grandmother talking. Cora’s grandmother had never seen the ocean before that bright afternoon in the port of Ouidah and the water dazzled after her time in the fort’s dungeon. The dungeon stored them until the ships arrived. Dahomeyan raiders kidnapped the men first, then returned to her village the next moon for the women and children, marching them in chains to the sea two by two. As she stared into the black doorway, Ajarry thought she’d be reunited with her father, down there in the dark. The survivors from her village told her that when her father couldn’t keep the pace of the long march, the slavers stove in his head and left his body by the trail. Her mother had died years before.
Cora’s grandmother was sold a few times on the trek to the fort, passed between slavers for cowrie shells and glass beads. It was hard to say how much they paid for her in Ouidah as she was part of a bulk purchase, eighty-eight human souls for sixty crates of rum and gunpowder, the price arrived upon after the standard haggling in Coast English. Able-bodied men and childbearing women fetched more than juveniles, making an individual accounting difficult.
The Nanny was out of Liverpool and had made two previous stops along the Gold Coast. The captain staggered his purchases, rather than find himself with cargo of singular culture and dis- position. Who knew what brand of mutiny his captives might cook up if they shared a common tongue. This was the ship’s final port of call before they crossed the Atlantic. Two yellow-haired sailors rowed Ajarry out to the ship, humming. White skin like bone.
The noxious air of the hold, the gloom of confinement, and the screams of those shackled to her contrived to drive Ajarry to madness. Because of her tender age, her captors did not immediately force their urges upon her, but eventually some of the more seasoned mates dragged her from the hold six weeks into the passage. She twice tried to kill herself on the voyage to America, once by denying herself food and then again by drowning. The sailors stymied her both times, versed in the schemes and inclinations of chattel. Ajarry didn’t even make it to the gunwale when she tried to jump overboard. Her piteous aspect, recognizable from thousands of slaves before her, betrayed her intentions. Chained head to toe, head to toe, in exponential misery.
Although they had tried not to get separated at the auction in Ouidah, the rest of her family was purchased by Portuguese traders from the frigate Vivilia, next seen four months later drifting ten miles off Bermuda. Plague had claimed all on board. Authorities lit the ship on fire and watched her crackle and sink. Cora’s grandmother knew nothing about the ship’s fate. For the rest of her life she imagined her cousins worked for kind and generous masters up north, engaged in more forgiving trades than her own, weaving or spinning, nothing in the fields. In her stories, Isay and Sidoo and the rest somehow bought their way out of bondage and lived as free men and women in the City of Pennsylvania, a place she had overheard two white men discuss once. These fantasies gave Ajarry comfort when her burdens were such to splinter her into a thousand pieces.
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