Tuesday, 23 March 2021

In The Palace Of Flowers by Victoria Princewell @vpofrances #PalaceOfFlowers @CassavaRepublic @Brownlee_Donald #MyLifeInBooks


Set in Iran at the end of the 19th Century ―in the Persian royal court of the Qajars―, In The Palace of Flowers is an atmospheric historical novel about Jamila, an Abyssinian slave who stands at the funeral of a Persian nobleman, watching the rites with empty eyes. In that very moment, she realises that her life will never be acknowledged or mourned with the same significance. The fear of being forgotten, of being irrelevant, sets her and Abimelech, a fellow Abyssinian slave and a eunuch, on a path to find meaning, navigating the dangerous and deadly politics of the royal court, both in the government and the harem, before leading her to the radicals that lie beyond its walls. Love, friendship and the bitter politics within the harem, the court and the Shah’s sons and advisors will set the fate of these two slaves. Highly accomplished, richly textured and elegantly written, In The Palace of Flowers is a magnificent novel about the fear of being forgotten.

In The Palace Of Flowers by Victoria Princewell was published on 25 February 2021 by Cassava Republic Press.

I'm delighted to welcome the author to Random Things today. She's talking about the books that are special to her in My Life In Books.

My Life in Books - Victoria Princewell

Whilst 12 is a generous number, any lifelong reader will struggle to distil the books that remain special to them into an exhaustive list. There may always be some they have forgotten. With that caveat in mind, I turn perhaps, lazily, to the books that have captured my attention, stunned me as I read and lingered for a long time after, in recent times. In no particular order, here we go. 

First is On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. This is one of the rare moments that, even prior to reading it, simply reading about it and the author himself, I knew I would be enthralled by the contents, and Vuong did not, could not, disappoint. On Earth is a quietly devastating piece of writing; each line rings with sincerity. What struck me most is a portrait that many children of immigrant parents will know but rarely see captured in fiction. His acute portrayal of a loving mother, whose nervous, uncertain parenting, in an unfamiliar country, will lack nuance but manifest bluntly, in narrow rules, in a dearth of reason, in intermittent moments of violence. This will be distinct from child abuse which may also take the shape of narrow rules, a dearth of reason and intermittent acts of violence. The distinction speaks only to intent; the former is just as capable of leaving traumatic scars. But the capacity to distinguish between the two is a testament to Vuong’s writing and the rare complicated visibility his work offers.

The next two are works that I relied on as research, but I return to again as a consumer of history, literature and art. Of these, Qajar African Nannies: African Slaves and Aristocratic Babies, by Pedram Khosronejad, remains a book I might never have come across but for writing In the Palace of Flowers. Khosronejad is a visual anthropologist and it’s his photography, much of which is documented in this book that set me on the path of exploring the lives behind this untold story, of enslaved Abyssinians living in the royal court of Qajar Iran. In these photos, whilst the enslaved nannies are dressed so opulently, in clothes that mirror those of the aristocrats they hold, their eyes are haunted and the loss and longing within echoes across the pages.

The second of these two books, I used as research, for In the Palace of Flowers, is the autobiography of Nasir al-Din Shah’s daughter, Taj al-Saltana. Crowning Anguish: Memoirs of a Persian Princess from the Harem to Modernity, 1884-1914 is uncommon for its time. An Iranian Princess and a feminist, a divorcee, a saloniere and an activist, she was a vocal critic of her father’s, and her brother’s, reign(s) as Shah, and a lone voice demanding women’s rights, arguing in favour of the constitutional revolution and challenging the incompetency of the orthodoxies of the time. Reading her memoir was one of those rare moments where the facts seemed stranger than fiction, could have dared to dream, and the book was littered with moments too surreal to include in my historical novel. At the same time it was dotted with carelessly astute insights into the layout of the Qajar court and the lives of the harem wives, so often excised from Qajar court narratives. 

I began 2021 reading The Disappearance of Rituals, a slim text, teeming with challenging and compelling interrogations of how we understand the purpose of symbols and the practice of rituals in contemporary society. One could consider it an inadvertent heir to David Foster Wallace’s critique of postmodernism. Whilst it’s too early to determine with authority that metamodernism is the age we’re living in, insofar as what has followed has been a pendulum swing between the irony of the postmodern and the wholesome goals of modernism, Byung-Chul Han’s examples help solidify said take. Skewering our current use of notions like “authenticity” which roll uneasily between the ironic and the sincere he highlights how capitalism has muscled in our a need for the meaningful, producing a world where Sincerity Inc is something we must collectively affirm and buy (into). The short book contains much much more and leaves you wondering with what and how we might carve out lives and practices that are more enduring and self-sustaining than what our digital culture currently offers.

Middlemarch is the fifth on this list and whilst I could wax lyrical about it forever, could I add to what has been said in over a century of admiration? One of my favourite books and easily one of the best of its era, George Eliot eschews the easier (to execute, spot and admire) tendency of writers from that period to depict and mock their characters simultaneously, offering subtle critiques of contemporary life. For Eliot, the literary goal is much loftier -- in this late 19th century account of provincial English life, she holds space for the complexity of the human condition, and avoids the lazy juxtapositions we now expect, where selfishness by one character, in one sequence, is offset by their grace in another. Humans are rarely so simple, their nuances rarely so neat. Eliot’s writing lets the fullness of the characters take centre stage and presents this whilst reserving judgement. It’s masterful to read, to watch and to recognise. I return to her writing, always a touch humbled.

Tamim Ansary’s Destiny Disrupted, A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes is the book I never knew I needed to read. Creative nonfiction and historical fiction strike me as two sides of the same coin and whilst my work and interests locate me strictly in the latter, the former is arguably as necessary as it is entertaining, as a vehicle for communicating knowledge and connecting a reader to it. I came across Destiny Disrupted when I realised that my grasp of Islam, being raised in the UK, and having never studied the religion, at school, was particularly poor. I was looking to understand not simply Islam but the history of the religion, particularly from a non-western lens. My book, In the Palace of Flowers, is situated in Iran, with leads from East Africa, and whilst its characters’ interest in Europe vary along a spectrum, it certainly did not centre any of their lives. The Middle East or WANA (or as Ansary calls it, the Middle World), however certainly did. Thus I needed to have a grasp of how they perceived their own history, uncoupled from what I had absorbed growing up in the UK. To assist in that understanding Ansary’s book did not disappoint. Furthermore, it was quite the rollicking read. Running through the story of Islam from the birth of its premier Prophet Mohammed, it’s a witty, sharp and rigorous piece, teaming with facts it carries lightly whilst maintaining a steady yet swift pace. It is perhaps the only book I have read where, upon concluding, I returned to the first page, ready to immediately begin again.

Snow Country is a book I evangelise about and send as a gift, unasked, to friends who display an interest in reading. Set in snowy Japan and written by Nobel Laureate, Yasunari Kawabata, perhaps more widely known in the west as the mentor of Yukio Mishima (another brilliant writer), I consider this text his magnum opus. A missive on loneliness, on yearning, Kawabata’s elegantly elegiac book is as startling for what it says as for what it leaves out. One is left with the sense that they are inferring more than he is implying and yet, in a defiant rejection of Barthes’ Death of the Author, it seems nigh impossible for the reader’s conclusions to differ even remotely from Kawabata’s own. I think of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and whilst the latter was written 20 years before Snow Country was published, I wonder, whilst these are two very different novels, if Fitzgerald, with his deliberate excising of Jay Gatsby’s candour in later drafts, wasn’t seeking the capacity to shape and control inference that Kawabata’s Snow Country so effortlessly embodied. 

Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score is one of the few non-fiction books about science and the body that I’ve read and found both rigorous and accessible to those without any kind of STEM background. (I am currently pursuing a third degree in Neuroscience but at the time of reading van der Kolk’s book, I had only two degrees in Literature and in Philosophy and little experience of studying science). The Body Keeps the Score is revolutionary in its insights about how our bodies handle trauma, clear and concise, whilst also remaining rather gentle in its execution. As though mindful that its audience may include those struggling with mental health stresses, it is empathetic without pandering. Strictly nonfiction it balances the emotional nuance and storytelling ethos of a novelist with the forensic insights of a scientist. And it really could transform your life.

The late great Eileen Chang whose fascinating life is filled with well-documented and harrowing traumas could well have benefited from the transformative possibilities of Bessel van der Kolk’s work. Her own writing, often portraying the thoughtful and the forlorn (hers is the short story that spawned Ang Lee’s film, Lust, Caution), is never more vivid and profound than in Half of a Lifelong Romance. The title (not unlike that of Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love) reflects the poverty of the English language far more than it accurately depicts the story within. Set in 1930s Shanghai, Half of a Lifelong Romance is a quiet tale of love and cruelty, bitterness and empathy -- the worst and greatest of our human capacities coalesced into power struggles explored through intimacy. One does not read it as much as they simply fall into half of a lifelong romance and stay within the sphere, even when the book is finished.

Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of my Name is a book that, along with Ocean Vuong’s, has led me to conclude (albeit with scanty evidence) that poets will always make superior novelists to non-poets. Allow me to state for the record that I am of the “novelist and non-poet” contingent that I dismiss(!) Audre Lorde calls Zami a work of biomythography, a term she crafted to hold space for myth, biography and history. Like Vuong’s it’s a vivid and almost sensual tale that puts forthright imagery ahead of purple prose. Starting in 1930s & 40s Harlem, and first published in 1982, when black queer women had little visibility, its relevance today in a comparatively richer landscape remains undimmed. The unhappiness is acute. Her isolation too. The ecosystem in which unspeakable acts of harm can unfold with no consequence so painfully mirrors our own. It contains a simple urgency that remains hard to articulate. And there’s something to be said for biographical writing that embodies the “coming of age” framing… and then continues. 

I first heard of Woman at Point Zero at Africa Writes, a biannual literary festival in London. Sulaiman Addonia (author of The Consequences of Love) mentioned Woman at... by Nawal El Saadawi as part of a discussion on female rage. Telling the story of Firdaus, a woman awaiting execution by the state in Cairo, the novel is a fictional take on an encounter Saadawi had with a murderer at Qanatir prison. Daring and unrepentant, it centres the perspective of this extraordinary woman whose life was both exploited, and ordinary, until she took it into her own hands. Even the weight of rage it carries, rather than being a gloomy tale of defiance, the determined voice of Firdaus cannot help but liberate.
The only thing better than reading the bell hooks’ rich insights in a book of her own, is seeing them unfold in the company of others. To that end, Uncut Funk, a dialogue between bell hooks & Stuart Hall, does not disappoint. It is both light and full, as these two titans of intellectual thought, black philosophers from two different sides of the transatlantic, probingly address a breadth of topics from black masculinity to home and homecoming, to feminism, family and much more besides.

Fragile Monsters is a novel I’ve only just finished, but it’s a definitive one for the ages. The author, Catherine Menon, is someone I know. We were in a writing group together, just over half a decade ago and are releasing our first books now in the same year. I was keen to read this, as she was a prize-winning short story writer when we first met and thus any novel she produced would meet that standard of excellence at least. Fragile Monsters, her debut novel, is a transgenerational story that starts in 1940s Malaysia about complex and often unpleasant women, bitter betrayals and unsatisfying loves. Migration, return, death and its secrets, serve as a vivid backdrop for the tense reunion of woman and grandmother, unmarried mathematician and frustrated widow -- and much more besides. It’s an intimate story, not an epic; the imagery is spellbinding yet subtle. A book to read carefully and keep close.

My Life in Books - Victoria Princewell - March 2021 

Victoria Princewill (Manchester, 1990) is a British-born management consultant-turned-writer.

Educated at Oxford and UCL, with a BA in English and MA in Philosophy, her work on race and contemporary culture has been published by the BBC, the Guardian, the Independent, the London Review of Books and n+1 magazine. 

She co-founded a TEDx series whilst a student, and in her spare time she attends philosophy salons.

Twitter @vpofrances

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