An Elegy for Easterly – Petina Gappah

One of my reading resolutions this year was that I would try and read more short story collections. For all my reading life I have avoided them. I think from knowing they are one of the hardest forms to write I worry they will be the hardest to read. I think of them as needing double the concentration as so much is crammed into so little, I also worry that I will muddle all the tales. Petina Gappah’s collection ‘An Elegy for Easterly’ has blown me away, I think it could be one of the best short story works I have read, which is even more impressive given that it is her debut work.

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Petina Gappah’s debut and collection of short stories are fictional tales of her homeland Zimbabwe. Though these are fictional accounts much of the descriptions and facts are very true to life based on what Gappah knows. Now I don’t see very much on the news about Zimbabwe and after reading this I am shocked and quite saddened at that, for it’s a place where things aren’t easy under the regime of Robert Mugabe. It’s also a place that has become slightly unstable since leaving the commonwealth. It’s a place where the rich get richer while the poor get poorer, a place of political regime and corruption which cannot be questioned, a place where aids is abundant and the economy has gone to pot – a loaf of bread costs half a million dollars.

Through the eyes of her characters, or tales in third person we get an insight into some of these situations. A minister’s wife watches an empty coffin being buried in order to stay in line with the president and have a life now her husband is gone in At the Sound of the Last Post. A congregation watch on as a bride marries a man with all the visual symptoms of aids and no one stops her knowing her marriage will also be the death of her in The Cracked, Pink Lips of Rosie’s Bridegroom. In the tale Our Man in Geneva Wins a Million Euro’s we learn the pitfalls of email lottery winners who end up in huge debts. Most tragic for me was the books title tale An Elegy for Easterly which showed how when the Queen visits all the mentally ill, the prostitutes, diseased and very poor are shipped out of towns and into the countryside and the shocking results this has.

With ‘elegy’ in the title you would expect it to be a form of lament; Gappah does throw in humour through some of the wonderful characters we meet such as the marvellous M’dhara Vitalis Mukaro. “When the prices of everything went up ninety-seven times in one year, M’dhara Vitalis Mukaro came out of retirement to make the coffins in which we buried our dead. In the space of only six months, he came famous twice over, as the best coffin maker in the district and as the Mupandawana Dancing Champion.”

To combine all these things and to then fill the tales with such emotion and vividness is incredible and shows the remarkable skill of Gappah. Whats more I have only told you about a few of the tales, there are many more most which deal with the shocking lack of monogamy in marriages and the effects this has health wise, emotionally and mentally. All this in under 300 pages too! It’s frankly a shame we have a few years to wait for her novel, I will without doubt be one of the first in the queue for a copy as I think her writing is incredible. No wonder it won The Guardian First Book Award. I urge everyone to get their hands on this, it’s just wonderful. I don’t think I can say more than that.

Which collection of short storieshas had you feeling like this? Which would you thoroughly recommend me to look out for? I am clearly thoroughly recommending you run and grab this collection right now.

28 Comments

Filed under Books of 2010, Faber & Faber, Petina Gappah, Review, Short Stories

28 responses to “An Elegy for Easterly – Petina Gappah

  1. Simon, you’re killing me. 1) I’ve just seen what you’re reading and I am GREEN. My copy hasn’t arrived (probably because it isn’t released until Thursday) and I can’t wait to read it; if I hadn’t one a give-away I would have bought in on the 30th when I saw it on display in Waterstone’s, obviously by mistake. I’m attending a Jasper Fforde reading on Monday so I am anxious that it arrives on time and we know what the mail is like just now…

    2) An Elegy for Easterly is still on my TBR pile since I borrowed it from the library in early December; you just bumped it up though! So glad that you enjoyed it and that you found it educational in regards to the political situation in Zimbabwe.

    Do you still have Say You’re One of Them by the bed? That would make perfect reading next.

    Verity has also said that Dorothy Whipple’s Short Stories have changed her mind about the form so you may want to check out your library! Other than that, you know my thoughts on great short story writers😉.

    • Ooh I hope you get it sharpish. I am enjoying it though feel slightly guilty as its my first foray into the world of Fforde and there are so many huge fans out there who probably deserve this copy more than me. Oops. I think its going to be a Fforde week next week, am saying no more.

      I am glad you have popped An Elegy for Easterly higher up the TBR its just brilliant and took me by complete surprise. I wouldnt say it was educational exactly as she doesnt preach or lecture which is great she just writes things that shockingly open your eyes.

      I did have Say You’re One of Them and along with The Thing Around Your Neck both African collections are awaiting some space and books between them before I devour those too.

      • Don’t feel guilty! No reader is more deserving of any book. I hope you enjoy it (I’ve read the first two chapters and received a distinct Orwellian impression – did I mention that already at book group?)

        The short story collections would be too much on the back of one another and don’t blame you having book space in between. I’ve only read the first couple of stories from Say You’re One of Them but they are powerful and The Thing Around Your Neck is great (although doesn’t pack the punch of Half of a Yellow Sun).

      • I am saying no more on Fforde, as I dont want Petina’s post taken over hahaha, my thoughts on SoG will be up on Sunday if all goes to plan.

        I started Say You’re One of Them and just wasnt sure about it, I will pop back though. This collection I was instantly into and just hooked.

  2. I love short stories and always try to squeeze them in between reading longer novels. They always seem so deceptively simple but are so hard to master.

    And I’m also green with envy about the new Jasper Fforde book too! I’m going to get it as soon as I return from holiday!

    • I have a big collection of short stories by the bed now and will be reading on or two of them everyday so that I can eventually get through it. I didnt think this would work for me but it is. Easterly I just read pretty much in one go, not in a day though, I couldn’t put it down.

  3. I love short stories, but haven’t heard of this collection… it’s on my list now! Have you read Unaccustomed Earth and Olive Kitteridge?

  4. I love short stories, I really really do, haha. Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help is a classic, and Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You is a gem. And then there’s Raymond Carver, Richard Yates, Carol Shields, Alice Munro… I really can go on and on and on.

    Most short story collections (and anthologies), I try not to finish in one sitting; especially if they’re really really good. (I did this with Miranda July’s collection, and felt a little drunk afterwards.) This habit, of course, keeps a lot of books in my “Currently Reading” pile. :]

    So happy (for some reason) that you enjoyed this collection (that I haven’t heard of). :]

    • I have been recommended Lorrie Moore by a lot of people actually and have never given her a read and I should have! I feel like I have a collection of her works and am going to have to have a hunt around I think. I havent heard of Miranda July until now so that sounds like someone to look out for too, especially if you feel drunk afterwards.

      I would definately recommend this collection to you Sasha, I have a feeling that Petina is an author to watch out for in the future.

      • I’ll certainly keep my eye out for this! And I am going to take advantage of your short-story mode, haha.

        Please hunt down that Moore book,🙂. Her language is wonderful. Example: The problem with a beautiful woman is that she makes everyone around her feel hopelessly masculine, which if you’re already male to begin with poses no particular problem. But if you’re anyone else, your whole sexual identity gets dragged into the principal’s office: “So what’s this I hear about you prancing around, masquerading as a woman?” You are answerless. You are sitting on your hands. You are praying for your breasts to grow, your hair to perk up. From Anagrams, by Lorrie Moore.

        Oh, Miranda July. This is the site for that collection; I think she’s amazing: http://noonebelongsheremorethanyou.com/ And I really love her for her language; I went away with things like, I don’t believe in psychology, which says everything you do is because of yourself. That is so untrue. We are social animals, and everything we do is because of other people, because we love them, or because we don’t. — which is from a short story, “Ten True Things.”

        Aaaaaaand I’ve taken over the comment box.
        :]

      • Okay, I didn’t want to overwhelm Petina’s post with mine. Thing is, haha, I don’t think there’s any way for me to have access to this book (college student on scholarship, in the Philippines), but I really did mean it that I’d keep an eye out for this book, because you’re so moved by it (made you read short fiction again, huh).

        Okay. Shutting up now. Sorry! ;]

  5. This sounds fascinating. As Claire says, I did change my mind about short stories and am on my second volume in as many weeks – they’re useful to have on hand for odd moments I think.

    • I can see what you mean, I think I might start taking them out on commutes more maybe as they are probably the right size to read one each way in and out of town hahaha. Am definitley going to be reading much more short stories this year!

  6. novelinsights

    You were obviously a bit blown away by this! It sounds quite wonderful from your review. I will have to read it in the not too distant future, although I fear it’s the kind of book that may rile me up!

    • Well your dreams may come true as oddly enough I have a spare one indoors with someone called Polly’s name written on it (in a magical not real way as I would never draw on a book). It didnt rile me… oh ok it did.

  7. I’m not usually one for short stories, but now I do want to read this collection, thanks to your review!

    • I would say this is a perfect collection if you are not normally a lover of shorts, I wasnt and this as you can hopefully tell was an absolute treat for me. It has made me want to read lots more short stories.

  8. Deb

    For a non-fiction view of contemporary Zimbabwe, try Peter Godwin’s When the Crocodile Eats the Sun. Mugabe has destroyed what was once the breadbasket of Africa. Shame.

    • I shall look into that book for definite Deb as I am keen to read much more about Zimbabwe and what has happened there. I will have to see if my library have this book.

      • Deb

        Sorry, the correct title is When a Crocodile Eats the Sun. I know some library database search engines are very picky and using the wrong article might result in “no books found.” Anyway, a book worth reading.

      • I looked it p by author its currently on loan but am going to definately keep my eyes peeled so thank you very much. It sounds great!

  9. The best short story collection I’ve read recently is In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. It’s an excellent portrayal of 1970s Pakistan and really gorgeously written. I highly recommend it!

    I’m glad this one was so good! I’ve been interested in it since it won that prize.

    • Thanks Aarti. I am really, really keen to read In Other Rooms, Other Wonders as have heard lots of wonderful things about it! I will have to look that up in the library too!

      This was definately deserving of the Guardian prize. Am hoping its up for the Orange!

  10. natashasolomons

    Ok I’m sold. I’m going to buy a copy as soon as I can.

    I’m with you about struggling to read short stories. I find beginnings of books the hardest part and the thing about short story collections is that there are lots more beginnings…

    Saying that, I’ve been reading more recently. The collection that converted me is Mollie Panther-Downes ‘Goodnight, Mrs Craven and Other Stories’ published by Persephone. They are that miraculous mixture of pathos and humour; wry observation and perfect language. And all reveal different aspects of everyday life in Britain during WW2 – the mistress worrying about how she’ll find out if her married lover is killed, the wolfish hunger of a school mistress… the retired general longing for one last battle but relegated to pruning roses…

    In fact, I might go and make a cup of tea and have another peruse right now…

    • Hi Natasha, I am 100% with you on the collection of Panther – Downes stories, they were my first introduction to Persephone actually though on of the ones I had heard the least about… I have my library to thank for that discovery.

      Enjoy your tea and maybe have a biscuit to go with it and the stories I say!

  11. I love short stories, so must track down a copy og this. My absolute favourite writer of them is Alice Munro, but I also really like Henry James, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Angela Carter, Ali Smith, A.S. Byatt, William Maxwell, David Malouf, Robert Drewe and Cate Kennedy to name a few!

  12. Pingback: The Book of Memory – Petina Gappah | Savidge Reads

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