Princess Bari by Hwang Sok-yong

princess-BariIn the North Korean city of Chongjin, a seventh daughter is born in 1983 to a couple longing for a son. Abandoned hours after her birth, she is dragged away by the family dog and eventually rescued by her grandmother. The old woman names the child “Bari”, after a Korean legend telling of a similarly forsaken princess who undertakes a quest for an elixir that will bring peace to the souls of the dead.

Princess Bari is a beautiful and rewarding novel that uses the retelling of a legend to produce a story for our times. Bari journeys in both the tangible, physical world that we reside in and the spirit world of the dead as she seeks freedom for herself and the people she meets on the way.Her escape to London from extreme poverty in North Korea is made all the more harrowing that I read it alongside news reports of hundreds of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean trying to make similar journeys from North Africa. The crossover from fiction to rolling news and the power of the author’s descriptions are devastating and make refusal to respond to this humanitarian crisis unbearable.

Bari’s is a story of endurance through suffering and it is impossible not to feel emotionally attached to her and yearn for a world that seeks to share and heal suffering. Why do we not reach out to those who suffer and help to heal them? Why do we see everything in financial terms rather than seeing the people affected? Why do we only seek a skewed justice that is suited to our own ends rather than true justice?

The jewel of this story is in Bari’s walk through the spirit world and her eventual understanding of the fabled life giving water that she seeks. It is only through this spiritual understanding that we can hope to answer the physical questions that have been raised and at the end of her journey Bari speaks truths to the people she has met that we all need to hear.

This is a beautiful novel filled with wisdom that would be suited to reading and then re-reading at different stages of life from teens to old age. The style is simple and accessible in the manner of the folk tales that it draws from, allowing it to be read in just a few sittings but reflected upon long afterwards.

Princess Bari is published on 27 April 2015 by Periscope Books and you can find out more about them at their website www.periscopebooks.co.uk

Hwang Sok-yong, one of Asia’s most renowned authors, was born in 1943. In 1993, he was sentenced to seven years in a South Korean prison for a “breach of national security”, having made an unauthorised trip to North Korea to promote artist exchanges between the North and South. Five years later, he was released on a special pardon by the new South Korean president. He is the recipient of South Korea’s most prestigious literary prizes, and has been shortlisted for the Prix Femina Étranger.

Honourable Friends by Caroline Lucas

Honourable FriendsIt feels like our politics is broken. Whether it be our electoral system which means that most votes that are cast have little or no value, or the power of the lobbyists who leave little room for democracy and call the tune to such an extent that the main parties look almost identical, or the politicians themselves immersed in scandal and seemingly more interested in the potential for next career directorships than representing their constituents, things need to change.

Caroline Lucas has always appeared to be something different, a politician with integrity who has entered parliament to fight for what is right and fuelled by a passion for the common good rather than vested interests. In Honourable Friends she tells us a bit about what she found in the Palace of Westminster, the role she has played there since her election in 2010 and how she would like to see it changed to better meet the needs of the people.

It isn’t a political diary in the tradition of Tony Benn and others but it does give a clear insight into the workings of our parliament and also of Lucas’s – and by extension the Green Party’s – vision for the future. Crucial to both are making parliament more accessible and more accountable and putting people and the planet ahead of corporations, profit and growth. She makes a strong case that we face serious, generation defining challenges and that we cannot meet them with more of the same, but she also does it with a hope that is lacking elsewhere.

Whilst she highlights areas of frustration, such as the out dated mechanisms of the political system and the iron fist enforcement of party whips who seem to want their own MP’s to be uninformed sheep to be herded, she also presents examples of cross party collaboration facilitated by her lone Green status, some of which are very surprising. It is also refreshing to see a Member of Parliament prepared to join a people’s protest and refuse to let go of her values, even in the face of arrest.

Lucas is articulate and presents her arguments well whilst remaining human and in touch with the reality of “normal” life. In many ways it is a shame that she is no longer the leader of her party as she is both compelling and accessible at a time when the Green Party need to connect with a wider audience than normal and build on the recent surge in interest they have attracted. As the media focus on them grows they will need figureheads who walk the line of being media savvy and genuinely sincere.

We stand at a crucial moment. Not only are the effects of Climate Change becoming more apparent and extreme but our political system is also at a tipping point for potential change. Just at the moment that we need a progressive alliance to lead the country into a new age of prosperity built on equality rather than growth we also have the opportunity to deliver it. For all the failings of the current coalition it has opened our eyes to the possibilities of minority government.

Any hope for a progressive alliance requires the Labour Party at its heart, but recent history shows that it is a party that has become removed from its core values and needs others to pull it back on course. It is in this space that the Green Party, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats (perhaps minus the leadership of Nick Clegg) can push for a focus on the common good within the natural limits of the planet we inhabit. Hopefully come 8 May Caroline Lucas will have some Honourable Friends alongside her in Westminster.

Hotel Arcadia by Sunny Singh

Hotel-ArcadiaA key part of any novel is creating characters who the reader can relate to, who you want to root for, and in Sam and Abhi author Sunny Singh has done exactly that. The setting is the Hotel Arcadia, a luxurious hotel now rocked by violence as heavily armed men take control with brutal savagery. Abhi is the hotel manager who watches events unfold on his bank of CCTV cameras and helps co-ordinate the response. Sam is a photographer seeking rest from her latest conflict assignment but thrust into another.

The novel counts down events in the hotel siege through Abhi’s screens and Sam’s lens but the crucial element is our glimpse into the lives of these two hurting people and the growing relationship that develops between them. As their situation becomes more desperate they reach out to each other, and to the reader, to be understood.

The action all takes place in the confined space of the hotel. Sam photographs the dead for a living, it is a fascination for her, and she is driven out of the relative safety of her room to explore the devastation around her. Abhi is holed up in his office and provides the eyes for Sam, the security forces building up outside and the hotel guests who have evaded capture or death hidden in their rooms.

As the drama unfolds we are also taken back to scenes from their lives, events and people that have shaped them and their dreams and brought them to this place. The action is well managed as the chapters tick off the hours of the siege with the flashbacks interspersed to connect us to the key protagonists and build our emotional attachment, revealing wounds and opening up vulnerability.

It is a well-constructed, well written novel that opens up questions about what forms us as people, what breaks us and also what heals. The jeopardy of their situation makes Sam and Abhi evaluate their lives, what and who really matters, and how they might move forwards, if events will even allow them lives beyond the terror that surrounds them. It is striking how a crisis can change perspective, turn priorities on their head, and maybe we can all learn from their experience, rather than waiting for our own tipping point.

Hotel Arcadia is a character driven thriller filled with a violence that we hope never to meet face to face, but most of all it is a window into other lives which provides a reflection into our own. If Sam and Abhi make it out alive they will have changed, more deeply conscious of the wounds they have received and inflicted and more able to heal both. Prepare to enter the hotel of your dreams to live out a nightmare, but if you make it out alive will you be the same?

Hotel Arcadia is published by Quartet Books and is out now. You can find out more about Sunny Singh and her work at her website www.sunnysingh.net