Mini Reviews: Inspired by Real Events

Each of today’s books are inspired by real events or the author’s own experiences, but I could just as easily have titled these ‘books about trauma’.

Take care when reading, friends! I’ve included some content warnings for the below as well (and a reminder that StoryGraph has a great collection of reader-source CWs for many books).

Book cover for Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi. Black background with ripped scraps of paper. Each scrap has an illustration of a body part - eye, ear, or mouth, or a piece of the title or author text.

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, translated by Jonathan Wright
Genre: Literary Fiction | Horror
Own voices: Iraqi
Content warnings: death, violence, body horror, suicide, war, murder

From the rubble-strewn streets of U.S.-occupied Baghdad, Hadi–a scavenger and an oddball fixture at a local café–collects human body parts and stitches them together to create a corpse. His goal, he claims, is for the government to recognize the parts as people and to give them proper burial. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city, and reports stream in of a horrendous-looking criminal who, though shot, cannot be killed.

Frankenstein is one of my favourite classics so I was very intrigued by this retelling. CWs for my review here (as well as the book) as I get into some of the graphic detail and heavier content in setting up this story.

This book follows the original classic with a murderous creature formed out of multiple corpses. However in Saadawi’s story, these corpses are victims of suicide bombings, the story set in Iran following the USA’s invasion, and the creature sets out to seek justice for these parts of it’s self.

While the author doesn’t directly comment on foreign conflicts and warring governments, we see the horrific impacts of this violence on each character in the book and the larger implications and realizations are subtly pushed forward throughout the story for the reader to come to on their own.

Because of this more subtle undertone, it does feel that the descriptions of death and destruction are at times callous or impartial but I think the author’s intentions and style work beautifully in getting his point across.

Book cover for Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. Illustration of a two-headed python against a purple and white background. python

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Genre: Literary Fiction
Own voices: Nigerian | Multiplicity
Content warnings: sexual assault, child abuse, suicide attempt, self-harm

An extraordinary debut novel, Freshwater explores the surreal experience of having a fractured self. It centers around a young Nigerian woman, Ada, who develops separate selves within her as a result of being born “with one foot on the other side.”

Another book that left me a little confused, and another beautifully written story of some very destructive acts.

Freshwater has been described as partially non-fiction because both author and character experience multiplicity (multiple personalities) and consider themselves as an ogbanje, a term from Igbo religion meaning a hostile spirit in a human body. It felt like such a creative way to illustrate this reality but knowing that this is the author’s own way of identifying helped it feel grounded as well.

This is an intense book. There are many traumatic events within, including graphic sexual assault, so do take care when reading this one. I found it a powerful story and interesting following the review above as the main character here feels a bit monstrous at times as she seeks to destroy or cope with her other selves. Very glad I finally started reading Emezi this year.

Book cover for Home Fire by Kamila Shamsi. Photo of a created paper flower with multiple layers of different colours of paper rippling out, in pinks, blues, reds, and purple.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Genre: Fiction
Own voices: Indian Muslim
Content warnings: Islamophobia, death, racism, misogyny, murder, death of parent

The suspenseful and heartbreaking story of an immigrant family driven to pit love against loyalty, with devastating consequences.

I learned of this book from Sunni @ Van Reads and when she explained that it was a retelling of Antigone, one of my favourite plays, but through the lives of British Muslims, I immediately added it to my list.

Even knowing that going in, it took me an embarrassing long time to pick up on how the story is connected (I really need to reread the play). But once I did, I was blown away, and the way the story progresses becomes a bit easier to stomach because it echoes the original. I do not disagree with those who are angry and disagree with the ending, though.

I think knowing that it’s a retelling, and knowing the source material, does help to piece this story together, particularly in reference to the above. The main antagonist in Shamsie’s story echoes the ‘villain’ of Antigone but with the context of the modernized story, it is a bit awkward that one man comes to stand for all of Islamophobia when we as readers know it’s not that simple to pin down to one person.

My final thoughts on this one were that it was depressing and infuriating and still an incredible retelling. I still want to seek out more reviews by Muslim readers as the book stirs up a lot of Islamophobia – portrayed as wrong but still a constant throughout the story. It’s certainly not a hopeful picture for Muslim communities as so much of the content is focused on the threat of jihadist movements and anti-Muslim sentiments in government so I wouldn’t be surprised if some choose not to pick this one up at all.

Book cover for Scratching River by Michelle Porter. Illustration of a topographical map showing a river in blues and whites beside a ridged bank in green and grey.

Scratching River by Michelle Porter
Genre: Memoir
Own voices: Métis
Content warnings: physical abuse, ableism, colonialism, medical content

Scratching River weaves multiple stories and voices across time to explore the strengths and challenges of the ways in which Métis have created, and continue to create, home through a storied and mobile social geography that is always on the move.

Big thanks to ZG Stories for a copy of this one to review! All the books in today’s reviews deal in traumatic events and impacts on families. Scratching River is perhaps the least graphic of all of them but there are still some really challenging events and abuses that Porter describes in her family’s history.

This is a memoir but Porter’s slow-moving, reflective prose makes it feel almost poetic. There are 3 main parts she brings together here: the story of her Métis ancestor who experienced Canada’s initial colonial policies and decrease in bison herds firsthand; the story of her brother who was diagnosed with autism and schizophrenia and suffered abuses in a care home; and a story of the changing rivers of this land that both men and the author have travelled through.

While Porter’s own description of the abuses against her brother by those meant to protect him are not detailed, she does include transcripts and clips from news stories and documentaries that provide more graphic accounts. I especially loved the afterword that provided more context on the author’s motivation for telling this story and her choice in format. I really enjoyed taking my time with this meandering novel, it’s beautifully told.

These reviews all got quite long for “mini” reviews but they’re all such wonderful books.

Do you prefer non-fiction or fiction that takes inspiration from real life?

I received a copy of Scratching River in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Own voices identification based on information made public by author.
Cover images and blurbs from Goodreads.

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