Beauty by Raphael Selbourne

Raphael Selbourne’s Beauty is captivating. I loved this novel and resented all interruptions, particularly during the last 100 pages or so.

Set in Wolverhampton, a city in central England, Beauty tells the story of Beauty, a young, abused Bengali Muslim woman, trapped in a miserable and threatening family. Beauty’s gradual understanding of the non-Muslim world and her personal transformation beginwhen she is forced to participate in job training in order to preserve her state benefits. Suddenly thrust into a new, confusing environment while still being pummeled at home is confusing and frightening, but Beauty takes note of the outside world and ultimately opts to take some risk. Two confused and immature English men show up to help her at this time of great crisis in her life. Other strangers are not so kind, and then there deeply flawed people who nonetheless step up to the plate.

That’s the premise of those wonderful novel. There are characters with unsuspected depth and courage, and there are some dreadful people on the other end of the spectrum. Their interactions set a fine and highly interesting pace for this book. At the center is Beauty, a damaged young woman raised to fear and condemn everything outside her family’s milieu. But, under immense pressure, she observes everything through increasingly interested eyes. The process is fascinating. Selbourne has created a unique character and a very rich story.

I highly recommend this book.

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The Red Sparrow — A Cold War Thriller for Modern Times

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Jason Mathews has written a Cold War thriller, Red Sparrow, that is set in modern times.  Not to worry, Putin is every bit as creepy a villain as those who were running the show before the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The book was hard to put down and had a cast of very interesting and appealing characters in well-chosen settings.  There was a female hero, Dominika Egorova, and a lot of sexual tension in addition to the usual spy stuff.  While the sex advanced the story, it was sort of a shame that the Egorova was defined as a sexual object.  Why is it that all the sexual degradation was inflicted on the woman and only then was she allowed to prevail?  The answer is an integral part of the plot, but I couldn’t help wishing that this really interesting woman had been created without resort to to making her a beautiful victim of sadistic sexual abuse. This is a clever book, but it could have been just a little more original.  Writers find all sorts of ways to create male heroes who are not sexually abused and subjected to voyeuristic torments, so with a little more effort it ought to be possible to create women heroes with less predictable backgrounds.

Red Sparrow is the first in a series.  I like Matthew’s writing, so I am hoping that the next book will be less conventional.