Tag Archives: non-fiction

Book Review: The Swordfish and The Star, by Gavin Knight

I bought this book because I was completely engrossed by an article in The Sunday Times that was written by Knight, based on his book. The focus of this article ‘Cornwall Uncovered’, timed for the annual invasion of tourists to our county, considers what life is like for the remnants of the fishing communities that exist on the fringes of the westernmost coastline of the UK. Knight spent time with several people within these communities, and the book narrates their tales.

The Swordfish and The Star is a narrative non-fiction, with a feel like you’re eavesdropping on yarns being spun in a pub. It fits then that the book is named after two pubs in Newlyn. The book is rambling, and at times feels like there is a lack of focus, unlike the pithy, well-argued article in The Sunday Times. The narratives come from the men (mostly) that Knight interviewed, and their stories are written in layers around each other, with the feel that the voices are clamouring to be heard. I am not convinced, having read the book, that I have any one story straight in my mind. There is a vast call of characters, and at times it is confusing.

What I loved about The Swordfish and The Star was the fascinating insight into the lives of the fishing communities, and the harshness of the existence. It is a social history of today, drawing on parallels of the Cornish of the past. Knight explores the essence of the Cornish – a lawless, maverick and isolated people. Those wanting independence, and perhaps a resentment of the ‘emmets’. That argument is lost in the closing scene, where the tourists are seen to be part of the weekly shanty-singing evening in the Cadgwith pub.

Where I thought the book fell short was that Knight, keen to explore the myths and legends of the past, seemed to be taken in by those told to him during his research. This is as much a part of the Cornish of today. Yarns are spun, tales are exaggerated, and I wondered where the lines of truths were. Everyone loves a good story, and the Cornish are happy to embellish when someone has their ear.

Overall, Knight’s book is compelling, and illuminates the harshness of the Cornish winters and the rural poor. A world away from the cream teas, the Padsteins and the affluent second homers and holiday makers that drift down from upcountry. Cornwall is one of the poorest regions in the UK, with one of the poorest towns in the EU, and Knight does well to explore that. However, his article does it with more clarity.

Book Review: Beyond The Beautiful Forevers, by Katharine Boo

Annawadi is a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport, and as India starts to prosper, Annawadians are electric with hope. Behind the Beautiful Forevers narrates the fate of three key families within this Mumbai slum, locked together in terrible and tragic circumstances. Abdul, a reflective and enterprising Muslim teenager, sees “a fortune beyond counting“ in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. Fatima, neighbour, born with one leg and a bitter rival of Abdul’s family. Asha, a woman of formidable wit and deep scars from a childhood in rural poverty, has identified an alternate route to the middle class: political corruption, and seeks to intervene (and make) from the tragedies of every day.

I bought this book for my husband, at the time of its release, as he had lived and worked in Mumbai. I visited him there a few times, and had become charmed by India and its people. We took a slum tour, in Deravi, Mumbai’s largest slum, a morning that I will never forget. Reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers some years later adds a layer that is hard to accommodate. What left me, after this ‘responsible’ slum tour, was how much pride, hope and ‘place’ was exhibited in these communities. We saw plastic recyclers, tanneries, schools – and the dreaded public loos. We peered in the slum dwellings, and remarked on the beautifully turned out children. We saw mostly smiles. We saw the computer facility, funded by the tours. To coin a phrase, we left only footprints, as it was forbidden to take photographs. This was an experience, and not a zoo. So why has Boo’s book unsettled me? Boo’s book offers little hope, and little sense of community. Neighbours seek to out do each other, make money off each other, none more so than Asha. There is such little kindness in Boo’s account, and that sits at odds with the people we met in India.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a remarkable book. It is well-written, almost novel-like, with tension on every page. It is achingly sad, even more so as it is all true. This isn’t the creation of a novelist, making their darlings suffer. Boo spent three years living in Annawadi, aided by translators, to report on the lives of the people that feature in her book. It is an impressive project, boiled down to a highly engaging, if disturbing, read. I imagine that I will be thinking about it, haunted by it, long after shutting the book.