"Literature is doomed if liberty of thought perishes", wrote George Orwell. Our freedom of thought, expression, or choice seems to be increasingly threatened by totalitarian governments and benighted individuals. This is why we look into the topic of freedom in our inaugural selection of books. The books we picked focus on different aspects of it and question some of our assumptions about what we define as 'freedom' and what freedoms - that are not available to some - we may be taking for granted.
Two non-fiction titles in our selection shine a light on the freedom of speech, gender and sexual liberties and slavery
In 'Everybody: a Book About Freedom', Olivia Laing explores the life of a controversial psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich (a protege of Freud), to shine a light on how our freedom is defined or limited by our bodies. In this rich and multilayered book, Laing draws links with other intellectuals and artists - such as Marquis de Sade or Nina Simone - and explores their fights for freedom and a more inclusive world. A world where no human body is 'criminalized by the state' or 'designated criminal in its own right'. While offering a clear-eyed and realistic exploration of how our bodily freedom defines our liberty, this book is also hopeful about our future. As Laing writes towards the end, "It is possible to remake the world. What you cannot do is assume that any change is permanent. Everything can be undone, and every victory must be refought."
In 'Blood Legacy', Alex Renton offers a chilling account of slavery in the West Indies in the 18th and 19th centuries. In this well-documented and brilliantly written book, Renton draws on the history of his own family - going back seven generations - and their involvement in slavery. His book is sobering in that it reveals how the well-off and influential families in the UK today owe part of their riches to slavery. Renton donates the advance and royalties from the sales of this book to educational and youth welfare projects in the Caribbean and the UK.
The three fiction titles in the selection look at some of the freedoms many of us - living in Western societies - may take for granted.
In 'The Country of Others', Leïla Slimani tells a story of a young French woman who falls in love with a Moroccan soldier and follows him from Alsace to his home town. By telling this family saga - loosely based on her own family's history - Leïla Slimani also offers an account of the rapid evolution of Morocco from 1946 to the present day. An evolution that started from the country's fight for independence and entailed many other fights and clashes over colonial racism, classism and sexism. Slimani tells this story through evocative and sensual descriptions of Morocco's luxuriant vegetation, its sounds and smells, and paints psychologically nuanced portraits of her characters. Tip: do not miss Leïla's talk at the Crossing Border Festival in the Hague on 5 November 2022!
In 'The Fortune Men', Nadifa Mohammed offers a fictionalised retelling of the story of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali seaman and Cardiff resident who was executed in 1952 in Wales for a crime he did not commit. Nadifa Mohamed tells this story through the eyes of Mahmood and allows us to delve into his inner world. We get to accompany him in these last days and hours of his life, where he grapples with the impossibility and absurdity of the murder accusations he is charged with. This is a story about the fragility of our freedom and, indeed, our life that we tend to take for granted. (Also see The Guardian review).
'From the Low and Quiet Sea' by Donal Ryan follows a refugee family fleeing Syria in pursuit of freedom. As Farouk and his family settle in Ireland, his narrative is interwoven with those of two other shattered men. The three storylines come together in the book's last part, revealing how these lives are intertwined. Donal Ryan paints the portraits of three men with empathy and compassion and brings their stories together in an unexpected and devastating way.