Stories that shape us

“Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it,” Gabriel García Márquez wrote in his autobiography “Living to Tell the Tale”. The novels in this month’s book selection do just that - tell us tales and take us down the memory lanes. But wait, these lanes seem to be meandering… is it what we remember or do we just think we do?

Many novels in this selection are reminiscent of García Márquez as their authors daringly mix fables and myths into the fabric of daily life. They all ask questions about who we are, where we come from, how our stories - and histories - shape us, and how we may also be shaping them in return. These novels will drag you into labyrinths of family stories and take you on a world tour from Georgia, Iran, South Africa, Hawaii and to Thailand. Oh, that’s going to be a hard choice! (We simply gave up and got them all, avoiding looking at all the unread books on our shelves…)

Originally published in German in 2014, this award-winning epic novel by Georgian writer Nino Haratischvili takes us on a tour of the “red century”, “a century that cheated and deceived everyone”. This family saga is told by Niza, a woman in her early 30s living in present-day Germany, whose family stories “formed the very ingredients of [her] life.” She retraces her family’s history back to her great-grandfather, a master chocolatier in Georgia at the beginning of the 19th century. The novel looks at the history of a family - and that of a country - as it goes through tumultuous times spanning the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, the Second World War, the Prague Spring and into the 21st century. Masterfully combining historical grasp and psychological acuity, this novel is a wonderful tribute to family memories.

Damon Galgut’s Booker-winning novel starts on the deathbed of Rachel Swart in apartheid Pretoria in 1986. We then follow the ironically named Swarts - descendants of white settlers - as they cling to their farm through tumultuous changes South Africa goes through. As with other books in this month’s selection, the novel dives into the history of the country and its defining eras while following the fate of the Swart family. Galgut’s black humour makes us laugh even in some of the darkest moments as he offers a satirical commentary on racist and bourgeois white South Africans. The novel’s quasi-magical realist narrative may remind you of Salman Rushdie’s the Midnight’s Children, where the surrealism of the narrative is matched by that of the historical events.

Disoriental is a brilliant debut novel by Négar Djavaidi, a French-Iranian screenwriter and filmmaker. This family saga is told by Kimiâ Sadr, a daughter of Iranian intellectuals and political dissidents exiled in Paris. For the narrator, it’s not the blood of her relatives that flows through her veins and defines who she is, but their stories. And she writes to not let these stories vanish. Kimiâ retraces her history back to her grandmother, zooming into her family’s life and masterfully interweaving it with modern Iran's history. Although the novel touches on heavy themes, the author does it with elegance and humour that alleviates the atmosphere of tragic moments.

In his beautifully crafted debut novel Sharks in the Time of Saviors, Kawai Strong Washburn - a native of Hawaii now living in the mainland U.S. - mixes magic and ancient legends with reality to create a poignant picture of modern Hawaii. The novel spans from 1995 to 2009 and follows the Flores family living in Hawaii and navigating through economic hardships. Family members take turns recounting their story and that of the island and its myths - both ancient and modern. A myth about the mainland as a land of opportunity and another one about Hawaii as a paradise on Earth serving as respite from the daily life for the mainland Americans. The pages of the novel fly by as we are confronted with the questions of how we find and create meaning through stories and myths and how we are shaped by the places we are connected to.

Memories of the Memories of the Black Rose Cat is the second novel by Veeraporn Nitiprapha, a Thai writer and journalist. And, just as her debut novel, it has brought her the Southeast Asian Writers Award - the most important literary prize in the region - making her the first woman to have been awarded twice in a row.

The novel spans the period from 1910 to the 1970s and follows several generations of a Chinese immigrant family in Thailand looking for its identity against the backdrop of revolutions, coups, and wars. The novel tries to understand how the historical events - and, especially, the period after World War II - have shaped Thailand into the country it is today. It also explores the role of memory, its inevitable fading and continuous recreation that offers us a fragile sense of identity and home.

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