Until a few years ago books about migrants and migration wasn’t really something I’d read. Then I moved to England and at UCL ended up 0n the “Word and Image – Migrant Literature and Film” course because I liked the interdisciplinary angle but also because it was something I could connect with from personal experience. I became really interested in how these stories raise questions about belonging, national identity and place attachment.
Since then I’ve been in love with the genre and whenever I come across another book written by or about a migrant I have to pick it up to see how much of my own story I can find mirrored in theirs. So I have decided to dedicate a blog post to write about some of the amazing books about migration I have read until now.
Sympathy – Olivia Sudjic*
“At twenty-three, Alice Hare leaves England for New York. She falls in love with Manhattan, and becomes fixated on Mizuko Himura, an intriguing Japanese writer whose life has strange parallels to her own.
As Alice closes in on Mizuko, her ‘internet twin’, realities multiply and fact and fiction begin to blur. The relationship between the two women exposes a tangle of lies and sexual encounters. Three families collide as Alice learns that the swiftest answer to an ancient question – where do we come from? – can now be found online.”
There are so many things I want to say about this book, I don’t even know where to start! I first wanted to read this book because I (ironically, considering the story), saw similarities between my own and Alice’s story about moving country. The book however turned out to be so much more than that! It is a story about migration and about finding a place to belong but it’s also a story about race, globalization, national (and digitial) identity and the role of social media in contemporary life.
More than any of these, to me it was about how we connect with other people, how we get to know them and ourselves through social media and how moving countries and the internet helps us to define or loose ourselves. There are so many layers in this novel and the writing just blew me away, I can’t believe this is Sudjic’s first novel. Some books I recommend to people I know because I think they would like that particular book but Sympathy is a novel I have been recommending to everyone since I read it because I feel that it’s an important and timely book that a lot of people will be able to relate to, migrant or not.
Peking Picnic – Ann Bridge
“Laura Leroy, wife of a British attaché, leads a divided existence, torn between her beloved home in England and diplomatic society in Peking – an ancient city of exquisite allure. When Laura joins a group of expats on an expedition to the great monastery at Chieh T’ai Ssu, they become intoxicated by the mysterious beauty of the Chinese landscape in spring (and by one another). But far from the comforting whirl of cocktails and picnic parties, they soon encounter a shocking clash that threatens the security of their newfound bond.
Set in the vanished era of 1930s Peking, this enthralling novel captures the unfamiliar thrill of a new city, the excitement of secret love, and the everlasting tension between the old and the new.”
I’m not a fan of pink normally but the cover of this book published by Daunt Books was just so pretty that it stood out to me when I found this in a bookshop a few years ago. If I could simply quote the entire book, especially the passages about Laura’s experiences of migrant life that I could relate too so much that it hurt to read, I wouldn’t have to write anything else about this novel or why I love it so much. Just to give you a taste though, here is the very first lines from the book that sealed my deep love affair with it:
“To live in two different worlds at the same time is both difficult and disconcerting. Actually, of course, the body cannot be in China and in Oxfordshire simultaneously. But it can, and does, travel rapidly between the one place and the other, while the mind or the heart persists obstinately in lingering where the body is not, or in leaping ahead to the place whither the body is bound. The whole man – or perhaps chiefly the whole woman – is in such circumstances never completely anywhere.”
For me, Ann Bridge has in the very first passage of her book summed up the entirity and severity of the migrant experience, the complete and utter heartbreaking truth about what it means to be living between two places and feeling continually split between the two. Another reason I love this book so much is that it have the most beautiful place descriptions that are so well written it’s like travelling with Laura to Peking yourself.
Daniel gave me Illyrian Spring also written by Bridge, so it will be interesting to read something else she has written and see if I like it just as much!
The Book of Summers –Emylia Hall
“Beth Lowe has been sent a parcel. Inside is a letter informing her that her long-estranged mother has died, and a scrapbook Beth has never seen before. Entitled The Book of Summers, it’s stuffed with photographs and mementos complied by her mother to record the seven glorious childhood summers Beth spent in rural Hungary.
It was a time when she trod the tightrope between separated parents and two very different countries; her bewitching but imperfect Hungarian mother and her gentle, reticent English father; the dazzling house of a Hungarian artist and an empty-feeling cottage in deepest Devon. And it was a time that came to the most brutal of ends the year Beth turned sixteen.”
This book is different from the other two I’ve already mentioned because the main character is not a migrant herself but the child of one. My friend C gave me a signed copy a few years ago because she knows I’m interested in literature that deals with questions about national identity, belonging and the longing for a different country.
It shares many of the themes with Sympathy but is a completely different kind of migrant book that has a much more nostalgic feel that I really enjoyed. I loved the idea of the physical book of photographs and memories setting the story off and I enjoyed the way it was written in both the present and the past between the two different lives Beth lives in England and Hungary, showing how the memories we build in childhood become essential to how we see ourselves as adults.The ending was completely unexpected and added an extra to the story about where we come from.
Brooklyn – Colm Tóibín
“It is Ireland in the early 1950s and for Eilis Lacey, as for so many young Irish girls, opportunities are scarce. So when her sister arranges for her to emigrate to New York, Eilis knows she must go.
Arriving in a crowded lodging house in Brooklyn, Eilis can only be reminded of what she has sacrificed. And just as she takes tentative steps towards friendship, and perhaps something more, Eilis receives news which sends her back to Ireland. There she will be confronted by a terrible dilemma – a devastating choice between duty and one great love.”
I had a conflicted reading experience with this novel. A part of me loved how much I could relate to Eilis’ feelings aobut moving to another country and another part of me disliked the ending but maybe that was because it was the only part I couldn’t identify with personally. That said, I still really liked it.
Tóibín gets the description of homesickness and the double absence of the migrant spot on; that feeling of being split in two, of being two seperate people depending on where you are and where you are absent from. The guilt that comes with moving away from your family and starting a new life somewhere else, with someone else. It also seems to be a good description of what it was like going to New York as an Irish migrant in the 50s, so it serves as a kind of modern historical novel, too.
What I love the most about all of these stories about migration is how different each story is but also how much they have in common with each other. I like how easily it is to relate to them if you have ever tried migrating yourself but also that it gives people who haven’t, the chance to experience it through the characters. It gives you a chance to read about other places, cultures and people, whose life might be very different from your own. It’s the best kind of armchair travel there is.
*I was kindly sent this book by the publisher after I requested a review copy. All opinions are my own.