The judges of this year’s Booker Prize, chaired by Neil MacGregor, selected us and five other book groups from more 100 applicants apparently. I got to go to The Booker Prize 2022 shortlist announcement party in London on 6 September, where I met some of the judges, members of the other books groups – which was lovely! – and received copies of our assigned book.
Our job was to read and review Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo.
This is how the Reading Agency describes it: “This energetic and exhilarating joyride from NoViolet Bulawayo is the story of an uprising, told by a vivid chorus of animal voices that help us see our human world more clearly.
“A long time ago, in a bountiful land not so far away, the animals lived quite happily. Then the colonisers arrived. After nearly a hundred years, a bloody War of Liberation brought new hope for the animals – along with a new leader: a charismatic horse who commanded the sun and ruled and ruled – and kept on ruling…
“Glory tells the story of a country trapped in a cycle as old as time. And yet, as it unveils the myriad tricks required to uphold the illusion of absolute power, it reminds us that the glory of tyranny only lasts as long as its victims are willing to let it.”
We read, we pondered, we discussed, and we reviewed! Here are our thoughts:
A political satire with shades of Orwell and old fashioned fables.
Sometimes almost poetic in the language, rhythm and repetition, but I found it a clunky read overall. I felt that the author was trying to get her point across by saying it again. Some passages were very flowing and there was a natural storytelling underlying the ambitious description of a nation’s resilience and repeated rebirth.
In the magic realist tradition of Midnight’s Children and One Hundred Years of Solitude, in Glory NoViolet Bulawayo sets out to do for Zimbabwe what Salman Rushdie did for India, and Gabriel García Marquez for Columbia. A truly nation-building novel, Bulawayo also incorporates the fabular tradition of political fiction. For this is not just an Animal Farm, but an animal nation, with every human in the novel represented by horse, goat, pig, peacock, etc. (leading to some comedic conversations about animal sex in our book group discussions).
It has splashes of farce, violent tragedy, trenchant political critique, and a rolling command of its postcolonial diction; the merging of the colonising language of English (and of the Booker Prize!) with local language and contemporary expression. If this all sounds very serious, there are also meet-cutes in queues, social media savvy, and a very helpful list of penis synonyms. Rally round for this book!
The joy of belonging to a book group is that you read outside your comfort zone, which can turn up gems. The reverse is true as well of course. Personally, I found Glory a struggle to read. I’m not keen on allegory, and sometimes the satire seemed rather laboured.
Having started off disliking the repetitive nature of some of the book, after a while it became more ‘rhythmic’ to my ear—tuning into the author’s voice, I suppose—and the writing and descriptions were beautiful in parts. You can’t help but admire the author’s ambition in attempting to tell such a ‘big’ story about a nation and I came away from the book determined to read up more on a history and culture I have so little knowledge of.
I enjoyed Destiny’s story (particularly when she returned and had to ‘tune’ back into the place where she came from) and the social media stuff felt very relevant—not just in relation to the fictional country, but as related to all kinds of events these days. And of course it raised a smile when some thinly disguised bigwigs turned up. This is the first time I have seen George Floyd turn up in fiction, and I found that part of the book incredibly moving. The multiple points of view added to the novel too. Most novels published in this century concentrate on only a few, whereas this technique felt as if it was the only way you could tell a story like Glory.
NoViolet Bulawayo takes up the mighty baton of George Orwell’s Animal Farm in her Booker-shortlisted Glory, but offers us an ending in stark contrast to his 1945 masterpiece: the possibility of hope, and this reader thanks her for such light.
This beast fable, as sharp in satire and as affecting in allegory as its predecessor, shares the same lesson of how power corrupts in the most egregious ways, and yet how those who live under tyranny somehow manage to retain their humanity, even if in this book, they are a goat or a cat.
Bulawayo explores the idea that the colonial powers gave Africa her independence but not her freedom, and she doesn’t shy away from asking tough questions at our own culpability. Why do we allow dictators and failed leaders to stay in power for as long as we do?
Covering decades, this book is ambitious in scope and yet remains a deeply individual study of suffering under tyranny. And the writing just over halfway through the book about an unbearable example of brutality and its opposite of compassion, is glorious in the most humane and horrific of ways.
I could say so much more, but rest assured, book groups, this is one of those novels that will spark opinions, stimulate incredible chat and live long in the memory.
I liked the plurality of voices, form and perspectives in Bulawayo’s imaginative account of living through Zimbabwe’s political upheaval.
While reminiscent of Animal Farm, the voices, style and energy offers a fresh take on living through, with and against repression.
It took me while to adjust to the rhythm of the language and some unfamiliar words but by the end I was really enjoying the repetitions of words and phrases. I thought the animal fable approach was interesting but to me the boundaries of the conceit seemed to have some internal contradictions. There were many different animals (apart from ‘The Defenders’ – the police force – who were all large dogs), but there also black and white animals, and then also different ‘ethnic’ communities in Jidada, all of which I found very puzzling and it niggled away at me the whole way through. I also hated the introduction of elements of our real world into the fable construct, such as texts referring to President Trump, or references to Mugabe Avenue.
Those quibbles aside, I felt it was a compelling and powerfully written book. The most moving parts were Destiny and Simiso’s stories, however they were sections of writing that stepped back to a degree from the animal fable approach. I assume that was deliberate; no novel could survive being at that high emotional pitch the whole way so the fable aspect enabled the storyteller to create some distance from the horror of the people’s situation.
I thought it was a really interesting way to look at the impact of colonialism – forcing people to fight wars against their oppressors and then having to try to grow political systems and governance out of that trauma. There was a hopeful ending but I wasn’t sure it really was the end of the story and could see some of the most complicit and the most malevolent enablers of the past regime returning, including some of the characters that I found most intriguing – the preacher and Dr Sweet Mother – though Nevermiss Nzinga, the hilarious old freedom-fighting, sharp-shooting hen is also on hand to continue to inspire liberation.
A story of a revolution taking place in the fictional African nation of Jidada, the ‘Father of the Nation’ is forced out in a coup and usurped by his vice president who goes on to…repeat history and turn into an even worse dictator than the rebels tried to eliminate.
I did find the whole chorus of animal voices narrating the story slightly confusing and hard to get into for the first couple of chapters but that quickly changed. Yes, there are a lot characters but each of them is used with skill, purpose and intent.
Within the sweeping epic tale is the deeply personal story of the young goat, Destiny – my favourite character. Destiny has returned from a long self-imposed exile to find Jidada still in chaos. She and her mother, Simiso, are testament to the lives of women and girls who struggle under oppressive patriarchal systems. It is through the discovery of Destiny’s family history we learn of the deep trauma of genocide in Simiso’s home village but we also find the beautiful roots of Jidada, hidden for so long beneath the hatred, fear and intimidation.
Glory is an impressive piece of writing by an incredibly compelling storyteller. It certainly provoked a vigorous discussion in my bookgroup and ultimately is a very worthy contender for this year’s Booker Prize.
Weegie BeeGee on the BBC!
We were lucky enough to be invited on to BBC Radio Scotland’s Afternoon Show to talk about our Booker Prize experience with host Janice Forysth.
We chatted about our book group, nominally called Weegie BeeGee, and our 20th anniversary, the themes of Glory, the experience of being part of the Booker Prize process and meeting other book groups, and what kind of cake I’d make for it.
Here’s a clip of our conversation:
You can hear the full programme on BBC Sounds; we’re on at 1:40:40. Here we are in the studio in Glasgow’s Pacific Quay.
This is a BIG question for our book group – what cake to make to go with the book? In this case the fates determined that I ran out time for baking but I made it a week later: a frangipane plum cake.
Frangipani scent is mentioned a few times in the book, often when something good was happening. It’s from a species called plumeria which is found in many places including Southern Africa and the Caribbean. On looking into it (at least as far as Wikipedia) it seems that: “The common name “frangipani” comes from a 16th-century marquis of the noble Frangipani family in Italy, who claimed to have invented a plumeria-scented perfume, but in reality made a synthetic perfume that was said at the time to resemble the odor of the recently discovered flowers.”
Regarding the name frangipane, for what is a kind of almond paste used in cakes and tarts, Wikipedia offers: “The word first denoted the frangipani plant, from which was produced the perfume originally said to flavor frangipane. Other sources say that the name as applied to the almond custard was an homage by 16th-century Parisian chefs in name only to Frangipani, who created a jasmine-based perfume with a smell like the flowers to perfume leather gloves.”
So there is a connection between the plant name and the flavour. But what I thought was particularly pertinent was that this is a Western European name used for the plant – which presumably has local names – and for the scent/flavour. So it’s an example of how traces of colonisation can be seen – not only in botany where it might be expected – but also in baking.
And why plums? I thought it might be feasible for the red plums to be arranged like butterflies, to reflect one of the central motifs of the book. It’s sort of worked though two of the ‘butterflies’ have sunk.
Receipe from Waitrose Online.
Our Booker Prize in pictures!
Pics from my trip to London to the shortlisting party and our book group discussion at Saramago Cafe in the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow.