How the Irish teach us to die

My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach us to Live, Love and Die  by Kevin Toolis.

His legs bestrid the ocean.

It is astonishing that this line from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra does not appear in Kevin Toolis’s book, My Father’s Wake. This may be since Toolis favours quoting from the Iliad, preferring the ancient Greeks, to the English bard. This is not unusual: Irish literati are often fond of the classics as can be seen in great works such as Brian Friel’s Translations or James Joyce’s Ulysses.


The description of Mark Antony is fitting as Toolis’s legs have, since babyhood, bestrid the ocean that is the Irish Sea. And, his second favourite word, not far behind his absolute favourite – death – is ocean. Toolis prefers ocean to sea to the point of repetitiousness. But this is because he is talking about the Atlantic – the grand ocean that crashes against the west coast of Ireland, and in particular, Achill Island. For Achill Island, although unnamed in the book, is the seat of his ancestors. Toolis, like so many of the diaspora, has a leg in both camps, the West of Ireland and the UK.


Toolis writes powerfully about the coast ‘where huge Atlantic storms break onshore, scouring the landscape … surging in assault, striking at the rattling roof, the shaking windows, to suck you out, every living soul within, up into the maelstrom’.   He relates how many, most, of his family had, over the years, been driven out of the island by its hostile weather and infertile land. Men and boys had left for the building trade, resulting in the family homestead being abandoned and left to rot.

Toolis himself was brought up in Edinburgh and suffered at an early age from the threat of death. In a chapter headed Intimations – an allusion to Wordsworth’s poem, Intimations of Immortality – Toolis describes his two month incarceration, at the age of eleven, in the Male Chest ward. He was waiting for test results to prove that he merely had tuberculosis and not lung cancer. Men around him coughed and wheezed, visiting the smoking lounge to irritate the surfaces of any bit of lung unexcised by surgery.


This intimation of his own mortality, along with his brother’s death at 26 from Leukaemia, is what started Toolis on his life long obsession with the phenomenon. He worked with death, mostly as a journalist, in theatres of war, terrorism, mortuaries, famine, AIDs and the Troubles. Toolis became intimate with death, incessantly and intrusively questioning the bereaved until one day he decided that he, like death, had lost all purpose.

The subject of this philosophical memoir is how the Irish prepare for death from an early age. It is centred in rituals of reposing, removal, mass, internment and, especially, wake. Toolis, Irish by heritage, and Scottish by birth, writes critically about the Anglo-Saxon approach to death. He abhors modern habit of hiding behind euphemisms and condemning the moribund to agitated deaths in frenetic hospital wards. He calls this the Western Death Machine.

MI Irish Wake 1873 sketch Irvine.jpg
Sketch of an Irish Wake 1873. Image: Irish Central

In the first chapter, Mortalities, Toolis’s father is dying. Surrounding the bed the family and neighbours pray, chant, and keen in unison as if they were one sorrowing creature not separate selves. Interspersed through the rest of the book are chapters returning to the deathbed, the death and the aftermath. Toolis celebrates the fact that on Achill, when someone dies, hundreds of people, from children to centenarians, participate in what he calls teaching ‘us how to live, love and die’.

Works cited

Toolis, K. My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach us to Live, Love and Die.  London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson. 2017.

A version of this review first appeared on page 36 in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 14th October 2017.  It is reprinted here by permission of the Editor.




Will the shit hit the fan?

Roy on Desert Island Discs. 31 Mar. 2017

Shit is one of Arundhati Roy’s favourite words: you can hear her use it on Desert Island Discs.  She uses it literally and metaphorically when talking about India and, in particular, her home town of New Delhi.  It is there in various forms in her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which has just been published after a 20 year gap in fiction writing.

Unknown.jpegSince her debut novel, The God of Small Things,  Roy has been writing political non-fiction. The titles: The Algebra of Infinite Justice, Listening to Grasshoppers, Broken Republic and Capitalism: a Ghost Story, suggest that, not only in terms of subject matter, but also in use of language, those, what Roy calls, pamphlets, feed into her new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

Roy writes non-fiction mainly because in this ‘globalised’ world she is ‘Brand India’. Her presence is sought by activists who need a writer, such as the jungle- based Maoists in India’s secret war zone. Roy writes polemics. Compatriots, especially the corporate and governmental middle-classes, find her work extreme. But, says Roy, when she publishes, she has redacted most of her anger leaving just enough to structure her argument.

images-4.jpegThe anger is there in the novels too. Roy is particularly exercised by the caste system and the treatment of the lowest caste, those who dispose of waste, the ‘untouchables’. In The God of Small Things, the central love affair is between a woman, based on her own ‘headstrong’ mother and a Charmar or Dalit (untouchable).

In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness this caste is again centre stage, particularly in the character, Saddam Hussein. He renamed himself after seeing a video of the execution of the ex-president. He admired the dignified exit, whilst knowing nothing about the violent tyrant’s life. This is one example of Roy’s pervasive humour.

Saddam Hussein has been working in the mortuary handling corpses, making incisions and disposing of ‘viscera and organs’. The high caste Hindu doctors shout instructions from a distance, handkerchiefs covering noses. It is impossible to avoid smirking at such a ridiculous system.

Saddam Hussein’s family business is removing the cadavers, on which only an untouchable could lay hands, of sacred cows.

Dead cow in New Delhi. Image: Angelo Desantis. 2004.

Holy cows and bulls pepper the pages; often alive and well, sometimes tall enough to peer through second floor windows, but equally likely to be dead and stinking. They serve as symbols of several things: the unwieldy caste system, mysterious religious beliefs and careless producers of shit.

Cow catchers in New Delhi close in on their prey. Image: Zackary Canepari. 2008.

The novel is crammed with animals. Smelly old dog, Biroo; the fertile bitch, Comrade Laali and her litters; Payal, the scrawny white mare; two delightful kittens, Khanum and Agha and the rooster, Sultan, all play important roles. Finally, Guih Kyom, the dung beetle, introduced only on the last page, ‘lying on his back with his legs in the air to save the world in case the heavens fell’.

Asian-white-backed-vulture-at-carcass.jpgRuling the roost, so to speak, are the vultures in the prologue. In the 1990s cattle were given Diclofenac to increase their milk production and when they died the white-backed scavengers or, waste removers, ingested the cow meat.   The drug caused the ‘vultures’ necks to droop’ resulting in them ‘tumbling off their branches, dead’. Ethnic cleansing. Vulture genocide.

Roy uses creatures to symbolise various aspects of Indian life, especially political ones. The dung beetle, characterised as unclean, untouchable, is able to drag 1,141 times its body weight of faecal matter. But is it possible that Guih Kyom is also a symbol for hope, a cleanser of the vast, chaotic, filthy, rancid democracy that is India?

It’s hard to decide whether The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is magic realism. In the first chapter, ‘Where do old birds go to die?’, it is unclear whether Anjum, one of the central characters, is still alive or whether she is now a tree. She has branches and leaves and can feel the ghostly talons of vultures but also sleeps on a carpet ‘between two graves at night’.

There are also the preternaturally tall bulls. I think that Roy takes her characters to the edge of sanity, into a place where the Duniya, or real world, thins out into a transparent layer in which the laws of physics don’t quite work.

Image: Jill Peters. 2016.

Anjum, born with two sets of primary sexual organs, is a Hijra. Identifying as a woman, she moves in with others into the Kwabghar, a sort of brothel. I am not sure whether Roy’s understanding of transgender issues is sufficiently wide-ranging to be politically acceptable. She is accepting and not hostile but maybe naïve. She is, however, depicting a number of decades from the early 1980s to the present day. Attitudes change over time.

It’s clever when her colleague, Nimmo, explains that the two of them cannot experience the normal worries of people in the Duniya, because Hijras’ problems come from two warring genders. For she and Anjum ‘the war is inside us. Indo-Pak is inside us. It will never settle down. It can’t’.

It is hard to say why Roy chooses to place Anjum at the core of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. The mutilating and unsuccessful surgery that Aftab undergoes to become Anjum, could symbolise, oppression of minorities.  Or it could just be that Roy is pointing out that transgender people can be victims of unscrupulous quacks.

On the other hand the war inside Anjum is a way for Roy to talk about the war that modern nationalist India is waging on her own insides – her regions and peoples, a kind of internal ‘Indo-Pak’? Roy suggests that India ‘is colonising itself, turning on its own poor to extract raw materials.’

‘Fiction’ says Roy, ‘is less a book than a city or a sedimentary rock. You know it has layers and layers and layers. It’s mysterious and esoteric and you know you have to wait for it. It’s a dance and never in a hurry.’ The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is one such city. It is the city of New Delhi.

New Delhi. MoneyInc.

But it is also its own city, which is both more and less than New Delhi. Its characters are as much the bricks and mortar of the city as the mortuary, the Red Fort or the sewage system. Roy writes mainly about ‘non-citizens’ who do not own the city or have a place in it. She writes about the people who live ‘between the cracks’ of the institutions. In one short section she describes some untouchables who are employed in the city sewers but have no access to any toilets themselves.   Much of the novel is scatological – perhaps because Roy considers her country, on a number of levels, to be full of excrement.


Kashmir, beautiful, in spite of occupation by India, forms the backdrop for an exquisitely written sub-plot. A primal love/hate story, played out between eight characters. There may be something of Roy herself in Tilo: a young woman from Kerala, raised by a single mother, and whose head is shaved during a short stay in jail. This is Roy’s story too.

Roy says that the characters in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness have ‘conspired to confound accepted categories and notions – including my own – of identity, gender, nationhood and patriotism, faith, family, motherhood, death – and love itself’. It’s an extraordinary and exciting novel.

Works cited

Roy, A. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. London: Hamish Hamilton. 2017.

A version of this review was first published on page 37 of the Weekend Section of the Irish Examiner on 2nd September 2017.








MacLaverty salutes Heaney’s bog poems

Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty 


Hailing from Belfast, MacLaverty now lives in Glasgow, having spent the majority of his life in Scotland, first as a teacher, including a spell in the Hebrides, and afterwards living by his writing on the mainland. As a young man at Queen’s College, where MacLaverty was working in the biology department, he joined a writing group with Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley.  There his proferred poems were soundly rejected (by Heaney) although his short stories were lauded.

Avid readers of MacLaverty have been waiting for a new book since 2013, when many of his stories were republished in a collection. Previous to that there was Matters of Life and Death in 2006, other collections of stories and four novels, including  Lamb, and  Cal,  both of which were filmed (the former with Liam Neeson and the latter with Helen Mirren).  Whilst Cal and Lamb both provide contemporaneous accounts of the politics and violence of the Troubles, which MacLaverty lived through, Midwinter Break deals with the aftermath.

During the early years of their marriage, the central characters, Gerry and Stella were indirectly involved in bombings and shootings.  He always sought solace in the bottom of a glass whilst she turned to her religion. Now that they are retired each can give full attention to these crutches.

A long weekend in Amsterdam enables each an opportunity to indulge themselves. Gerry drinks most of a bottle of duty free whisky on their first night allowing Stella to rise the following morning without waking him. She makes her way to visit a religious order. Unfortunately Stella’s contact will not be available until Monday morning so she and Gerry have an uninterrupted Saturday and Sunday. For Gerry this means he can have a fat-laden cooked breakfast in the hotel whilst Stella makes do with a croissant and jam in a café.

The Milkmaid.  Vermeer.

There is time to visit art galleries and the red light area. MacLaverty draws parallels between the two experiences in a slightly clumsily manner. Both are perceived framed – the women behind their windows, the paintings also orientated as landscape or portrait. Perhaps MacLaverty is suggesting that both the women painted by Vermeer and the present day prostitutes are victims of economic deals.

But Gerry is not a philistine. He has made a career as an architect and loves classical music. Stella, who was a teacher, is no saint. Both are selfish in their ways. Both are loving and compassionate too.

It is important and moving to find elderly people as protagonists in novels. Their habits are irritating. Their bodies are failing. One needs artificial eye drops to replace the essential tearing function of the eye. One snores. Neither has a beautiful body.  Both make love with each other.

All couples must face these sorts of issues if they want to stick together until ‘death us do part’. An important question is, did the personal horrors that afflicted Gerry and Stella during the Troubles lead to their current unhappiness? I am not sure what MacLaverty would say in answer to that.

But, in an interview with the Guardian in 2013, he did explain that in 1975, already a father of four children, he said to himself, ‘Why do I have to stay here? I can teach anywhere’.

Who would condemn him for leaving his motherland? For taking his wife and children to a safe island off the coast of Scotland? For writing wonderful books, which became films and gave him an entry into the life of the arts in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Many writers in the North found safe havens in small cottages in remote areas. Many, like Seamus Heaney, are accused of watering down politics or hiding, in for example, the bog poems, behind ambiguity and metaphor. It may be that MacLaverty is saluting the late Irish poet, when, at the end of Midwinter Break he includes a meditation on bog people.


Works cited

Heaney, S. North. London: Faber & Faber. 1975.

MacLaverty, B.  Cal. Jonathan Cape. 1983.

— Collected Stories  Vintage. 2013.

Lamb. Penguin. 1980/

Matters of Life and Death. Norton. 2006.

—Midwinter Break. Jonathan Cape. 2017.

A version of this review was first published on 26th August 2017 in the Weekend section (page 37) of the Irish Examiner.  


Fasten your seat belts.

Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Future.

Douglas Coupland

A 25th anniversary edition of the iconic novel, Generation X, is published. Has it stood the test of time? 

25th anniversary edition

Twenty-five years ago I was an ordinary mother taking my kids to swimming and piano lessons. This book crash-landed into my life like an asteroid. Although I had been cool enough in my youth I had left childishness far behind.

In Generation X, I met Andy, Dag and Claire: well educated, middle class, late 20-somethings, who had dropped out of the rat race to stare at skies and stars in the Californian desert. Living in three adjacent bungalows, they worked in McJobs and were free of consumerism.

At the foot of most pages, Coupland gives definitions of words and phrases. Thus, McJob: ‘a low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who have never held one’. This term, then new to most people, was popularised by Coupland.

gen-x-2.jpgOther neologisms, or obscure terms, which are now familiar concepts, are ‘Yuppie Wannabes’, ‘semi-disposable Swedish furniture’ and ‘Celebrity Schadenfreude’.


The structure is post-modern – not only with the footnotes, some of which are car bumper stickers and some of which are picture-story graphics – but also in terms of the visible ‘non-printing’ character instead of paragraph breaks. ¶ There is also Texlahoma. This ‘asteroid orbiting the earth’ is a ‘mythic world’ created by the trio to provide background for a series of stories they imagine and narrate. Coupland calls it a ‘sad Everyplace’ in which ‘the year is permanently 1974, the year after the oil shock, and the year starting from which real wages in the U.S. never grew ever again… It’s a fun place to spend one day, and then you just want to get the hell out of there’.

Generation X was the first to understand itself as a target market. Andy explains, ‘our parents seem neither able nor interested in understanding how marketers exploit them. They take shopping at face value’.

In opposition to Andy, Dag and Claire, Tobias is cheerleader for Generation X. He ‘embraces and believes the pseudo-globalism and ersatz racial harmony of ad campaigns engineered by the makers of soft drinks’. Seem familiar?

Screen Shot 2017-05-06 at 18.42.55.png
Pepsi pulled this ad featuring Kendall Jenner after widespread criticism.

Tobias loves his career making money. He loves buying objects. He wears a fur coat in the New York winter, insisting that check girls put it at the back of the cloakroom to avoid paint-bomb attacks from animal rights activists.

Coupland divides US citizens into three: the parents, still living a cosy suburban life, Tobias consuming and wasting as fast as he can and, finally, the refuseniks, trying to live simply and in tune with nature. This is the most attractively presented group. They are principled. They harm no one. They love dogs. They tell beguiling stories. They are witty.

Twenty-five years later cynical marketing strategies have won. Nearly everyone has been accelerated into a world of consumerism. Trump could be seen as a version of Tobias who admits he wants to be ‘riding the lead missile of a herd heading over to bomb every little village in New Zealand’. Nothing matters to Tobias and his ilk but winning.

People, however, still blunder through their lives taking their kids to swimming and piano in the hope that their young lives will be fruitful and that the world, for all its evil, will not explode nor implode. Generation X was ahead of its time and its time is not yet spent.

Douglas Coupland: the Guardian

Works cited

Coupland, D.  Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Future. Abacus. 2017.

A version of this review was first published on page 37 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 19th August 2017.



At Swim One Girl

Turning: A Swimming Memoir

Jessica J. Lee


This is a gentle book – a slow burn. Jessica Lee is living in Berlin working on her doctorate. Her studies centre on Hampstead Heath in London and her home country is Canada. She is like a fish out of water. The city is presented as a place of transients. No one stays. No one expects Lee to stay. But the lakes enthral her.

As a child, Lee’s experiences of water and swimming were tainted with fear. She nearly drowned beneath a yellow foam duck until rescued by a lifeguard. She watched teen horror films in which swimming-pool-ghosts drag pubescent bodies to their deaths. She stared at black Canadian lakes in which all the other family members swam, but which she dreaded. There is a sense of doom as family rows and parental divorce play out against a background of lowering clouds and slate grey waters.

A lake in Brandenburg.  Image: outdoor swimming society.

Berlin is surrounded by thousands of lakes. Some of these are anthropogenic, such as disused gravel pits, whilst others are formed by glacial retreat.   Some are lined with silk-smooth sand whilst others clothe themselves in green robes of algae in the summer. Some of the lakes are clotting up and dying whilst others sparkle crystal clear or sky blue. In the winter the shallow ones ice over.


Lee discovers that the science of lakes is called limnology and this fits well with her own multi-disciplinary area of environmental history. She studies G E Hutchinson’s 1967 treatise on limnology. It seems appropriate that he, like she, left his place of birth, which was Cambridge, England to work all his life in another country, at Yale, Connecticut. Two emigrants.

In Berlin, alone and often lonely, sad and sometimes depressed, Lee invents a project with which to challenge herself. She will swim 52 lakes in a year. This does not mean that she has to swim from end to end or side to side or in a circular manner. She must simply immerse herself, float, stroke, stay in or get out double fast. Sometimes she decides to do three lakes a day. At others, time stretches between one lake and the next.

The book is structured into four main sections named after the seasons. First there is summer. Last is spring. Autumn is fecund: the woods surrounding the lakes are full of fungi, and the scent of mellow fruits. In winter, warm mists rise from the waters and the crack of the ice provides heightened sensual moments: ‘the sharp cut of freezing water on my feet. The immeasurable black of the lake at its coldest. Swimming then means cold, and pain, and elation’.

Bötzee. Image: outdoor swimming society.

The project is also one that embraces local friends as well as visitors from other countries. Bikes, or trains and hiking, take them to a lake. Some participants cannot swim. Some people don’t like to be out of their depth. And Lee, herself, has a strict rule: ‘Never Swim Alone’. As this is Germany, however, there is nearly always some other competent swimmer in the water.

Lee.  Image: outdoor swimming society

Although entitled a swimming memoir, the book tells of Lee’s upbringing and early adulthood in suburban Toronto. Swimming takes place, largely, in the Brandenburg lakes. Earlier years in Canada were often painful and joyless as Lee’s Chinese mother and Welsh father fought to overcome their sense of uprootedness. Lee herself coped, if she did, either by withdrawal or by impulsive change-it-all decisions.

But in the city of Berlin with its necklace of lakes Lee begins to find peace and some joy. A lovely, poetic, sensuous and melancholy book.

Image: Jessica J Lee

Works cited

Lee, J. J. Turning: A Swimming Memoir. Virago. 2017.

A version of this review first appeared on page 17 of the Weekend section in the Irish Examiner on 6th August 2017.

From argot to Austen: a wetback odyssey


The Gringo Champion by Aura Xilonen, translated by Andrea Rosenberg.

Some novelists expect their readers to learn a new language. Clockwork Orange is challenging, and so, more recently, is Trainspotting.   The Gringo Champion is equally demanding. ‘Yes, they’ve left me stratospherically muddled: my headlights are burned out, racooned, straticated like a panda. Black and blue. Turkeyfied. Back in my hometown they say I’ve got peeperitis – like the green-eyed monster. I can barely see where my peepers are reaching out their claws to touch things. My ears are asymmetrically buzzing, endecibelled by my ass-whuppative encounter with the addos.’

Aura Xilonen. Photo:Milenío

The novel is skilfully translated from Spanish by Andrea Rosenburg. The words that she and, young Mexican author, Aura Xilonen, pour out of the mouth of the narrator, Liborio, are an energetic torrent! Reading it is exhausting but addictive. The words are versions of actual words, and, in reading them the brain is engaged in an interpretative workout.

Liborio’s language comes from a series of foul-mouthed ‘carers’ and ‘employers’ although they give him scant food and no wages.  41vzwXE+YcL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgWhilst slaving in a bookstore he teaches himself to read, starting with The Golden Age of Spanish Poetry. By the time the action begins he has read ‘Virgil and Dante, Catullus and Bécquer, Boccaccio and Balzac, Homer and Tolstoy, Cervantes and Dickens, Austen and Borges, Pylorus and Aesop. His idiolect ranges from high culture to the lowest but lacks the normal register that most of us use to communicate.


It’s a crazy read. The language is wild, there are no chapters and the narrative is fragmented. Sometimes, in italics, there are flashbacks to Liborio’s childhood in Mexico and his swim across the Rio Grande into the US. In the ‘present’ Liborio lives a perilous existence threatened by street gangs, immigration cops, imminent starvation and worms.

In a way it’s exactly the sort of novel that I do not like. I particularly hate reading about violence. In the early pages, Liborio, 17, gets beaten up at least once a day. If he’s not being physically assaulted he’s being chased or cursed.   It’s horrible. ‘They raise their crushing clubs and give me a few tastes, one after another, on my back, shoulders, and braincase. One precise blow on the back of the scullery knocks me out.’

Rocky IV: The Action Figure Review.

But then it segues into another type of tale that I would not choose: the unlikely and soppily sentimental sort of Rocky Balboa rags-to-riches boxing story.  I hate boxing too. This is because it requires people to hit other people in the head, sending the brain in its fluid slapping into the inside of the skull. Result? Serious lesions. ‘The scruff leaps at me in a rage – I can smell his tense, jumbled musculature, scented with incendiary, malodorous, murderous perspirations – but before he can tear me to shreds, I see him coming at me and just like that, palindromed, I leap to one side and bring my fist down on his right temple.’

To top all this organised, and disorganised, violence there is romance. Boy meets girl, things go wrong, can they be overcome? ‘Without saying anything, just like that, out of the blue, I plant a kiss on her sleepy lips. Like that, swift, adolescent. Taking her face in my hands.’


The Gringo Champion is probably aimed at the young adult market although I am not sure how many teenagers have the necessary vocabulary. Their parents, furthermore, might not like them to have access to so many swearwords; the language is extremely coarse, as well as poetic. In spite of these caveats it is a charming book, centred on a charismatic, if unreliable, narrator.

Further reading

Works cited

Xilonen, A. The Gringo Champion. trans. Andrea Rosenberg. New York: Europa. 2017. Print.

A version of this review was first published on page 37 of the Weekend section in the Irish Examiner on 29 July 2017.


What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons


In her debut novel, set in Pennsylvania, New York and Johannesburg, Zinzi Clemmons takes on big subjects. She explores cancer, death, race and sex in an unflinching, but not fearless manner. She is fearful. Cancer is frightening and relentless. Dying is painful and sordid. Racism is all around. And sex can be dangerous.

Zinzi Clemmons. Photo: Nina Subin

Thandi, as a light-skinned African American woman, challenges the way others see her. She describes herself as a ‘strange in-betweener’, one who never feels accepted. Her mother warns her not to make friendships with women whose skins are darker than her own, stating that, inevitably, envy will lead to rancour.

As she matures, Thandi chooses white boyfriends, often freckled and/or red haired. Clemmons doesn’t draw the obvious conclusion – that Thandi is attracted to those at the very end of the continuum between whiteness and blackness. But it may be that she would love to be, like these boyfriends, definitely something. Others are constantly confused by her appearance. Is she black? Or Spanish? Or Asian? Or Jewish? At one time or another she is assessed as all of these. She’s told that she’s not a ‘real black person’.

In terms of the boyfriends, there are gentler passages about skin and stroking but, on the whole, the descriptions of sex are pretty graphic. The language she uses is coarse and direct. Thandi loves sex and gets a lot of it, one way or another. It’s not a novel for the prudish.


The most important role in life is, Thandi believes, that of a mother. The account of her beloved mother’s death from breast cancer, is gruelling. No detail is omitted. And the void left by her mother’s absence is at the centre of the novel. Numbly she and her father mourn her, surrounded by dust and take-away cartons.

In looking at motherhood Clemmons discusses the extraordinary iteration of Winnie Mandela, otherwise known as Ms Madikizela-Mandela, who was involved, alongside the Mandela United Football Club, in the torture and murder of youths. Clemmons moralises that maternal models are inappropriate for peace-keeping.

Winnie Mandela with some members of the MUFC.  Image: BBC World Service

Other examples of the real world intrude. Political events such as Obama’s election are documented. These do not seem to be inserted to provide a contextual time-line, but rather to make some sort of philosophical point about life and death in a fundamentally racist world. It’s mannered and is a bit of a stretch from the overarching memorial/ memoir tone of the novel.

Image: allafrica

What We Lose is, perhaps, an attempt to emulate or match Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s work, such as Americanah: a love/hate song to Adichie’s two countries, America and Nigeria. It doesn’t really succeed though, for three reasons.

Firstly, it is too much like the sort of autobiographical piece submitted to ‘true story’ women’s magazines, entitled I Lost My Mum to Cancer or I Know What You’re Thinking When You Look At Me.


Secondly, although the blurb describes the book as moving and emotional, it really isn’t. The characters do not ring true. Even Thandi herself, a protagonist who is supposed to be entirely self-centred, is lacking in personality.

Finally, the prose is fragmented. The style is more blog or notebook. Chapters are so short as to be mere paragraphs. Linear chronology is sacrificed leaving the reader floundering. It almost seems like a series of creative writing exercises have been cut and pasted.  It’s a shame because Clemmons probably does have interesting things to say about cancer, death, race and sex. Perhaps she needs to move away from what seems to be fictionalised autobiography to achieve that.

Works cited

Ngozi Adichie, C. Americanah.  Alfred A. Knopf. 2013. Print.

Clemmons, Z. What We Lose. 4th Estate. 2017. Print.

A version of this review was first published on page 36 of  the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 22nd July 2017.