An extraordinary, ambitious, globe-spanning novel about what we owe our consciences
Fleeing her moribund marriage in Cape Town, Beth accepts a diplomatic posting to Shanghai. In this anonymous city she hopes to lose herself in books, wine, and solitude, and to dodge whatever pangs of conscience she feels for her fealty to a South African regime that, by the 21st century, has betrayed its early promises.
At night, she hears the sound of typing, and then late one evening Zhao arrives at her door. They explore hidden Shanghai and discover a shared love of Langston Hughes--who had his own Chinese and African sojourns. But then Zhao vanishes, and a typewritten manuscript--chunk by chunk--appears at her doorstep instead. The truths unearthed in this manuscript cause her to reckon with her own past, and the long-buried story of what happened to Kay, her fearless, revolutionary friend...
Connecting contemporary Shanghai, late Apartheid-era South Africa, and China during the Great Leap Forward and the Tiananmen uprising--and refracting this globe-trotting and time-traveling through Hughes' confessional letters to a South African protege about the poet's time in Shanghai--How to Be a Revolutionary is an amazingly ambitious novel. It's also a heartbreaking exploration of what we owe our countries, our consciences, and ourselves.
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Average rating from 10 members
What a great read and a wonderful refreshing storyline. I would highly recommend this book as it takes on universal themes of truth, how we live with our past, and how to move in a world that often doesn't make sense. C.A. Davids has written a very ambitious novel, with three interwoven storylines. One following the life of a South African diplomate from her childhood in Apartheid South Africa, to her life in China concurrently with her meeting her Chinese neighbor Zhao, who lived through the horrors of Mao and witnessing the atrocities of Tiananmen Square. As their friendship blossoms, Beth is unexpectedly pulled into a political problem that Zhao feels compelled to release, as he is burdened with his knowledge of the past. This act of unburdening has ramifications for Beth, her diplomatic boss, and his wife Shan. Alongside this narrative, we are also brought into a storyline about Langston Hughes and his travels in Asia in the 1930's. This storyline is also looking at truth, and how Black Americans were treated outside the US and in the US, and how we deal with a painful history. Without giving too much away, I found the book easy to read, very interesting, and well written. Bravo!
It was great, a story mixed with historical events, and how it was from inside and the reality of it, it was very interesting. We follow three storylines one that is the story of a South African diplomate, Beth, moving to China who will meet Zhao who have seen things he isn't allowed to talk about (the horrors of Mao, the atrocities of Tiananmen Square). This will pull Beth into political machinery and become target of interrogations because of her friendship with Zhao; There's also th storyline of Langston Hughes travelling in Asia in the 1930's where there's a glimpse of how Black Americans were treated in and out the US.
Starts out with beautiful prose that Ebbs and flows throughout. This is a story with many stories. It is a trifecta of cultures (China, South Africa, US) coalesced with revolutionary and artistic spirit, and grave realities. I feel like the quality of the writing waned 2/3 through and then picked back up towards the very end. I’m very interested with how this will be received upon publication. Will it be read as nihilistic cyclical imperialism-revolution cum-totalitarianism repeat, or, as I read it, a homage to cross-cultural revolutionaries in whatever form they come.
I really enjoyed this book and it gave me a well needed lift to my day. The insight and humour spoke volumes about the experiences and challenges that we were guided through as the audience. I am very glad I read this book and would highly recommend..
Thank you to CA Davids, Verso Books and Netgalley for my ARC copy. I love this book. It gives voices to POCs and I love how it covers different time and countries. The characters are memorable especially Zhao and Beth. This book is timely and a must read. This book deserves to be a bestseller! I would probably buy a hard copy once it becomes available.
The thing to do with a novel where it's hard to get a firm footing, I've always been told, is to simply give yourself over to the overall flow of the book and not get too caught up in individual events. And it was with that in mind that I pressed ahead through the shifting landscape of C.A. Davids' "How to be a Revolutionary," which with beautifully lyrical prose takes up some of the landmark moments of the 20th century. The student protest in China's Tiananmen Square with its iconic image of the man standing defiantly before a column of tanks and the aftermath during which residents didn't dare even utter the day's date, the litany of horrors under apartheid presented so graphically to South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission, the Great Famine in China with its estimated death toll in the tens of millions, the various events play themselves out in their respective ways as each contributes its share toward an overall impassioned statement against all manner of prejudice and bigotry. Still, for all the overall breadth of the novel, the most compelling parts for me were the more subdued sections in which Beth, an emotionally scarred veteran of apartheid and a soured marriage, has relocated to Shanghai, where she is paired with Zhao, who has been writing a manuscript about his experiences in China. Reminiscent it was for me, Beth’s part of the novel, with its depiction of a woman in flight from her past, of Lawrence Osborne's "The Glass Kingdom," in which a woman has also fled her particular circumstances to install herself in a high-rise apartment building in Bangkok. And just as in that novel, where for all the vividness with which the city was presented the chief draw for me was the particularization of one woman's situation, here too it was the Beth parts with their ordinariness as she takes up her new life that gripped me most. Still, Davids' novel in its entirety is an important, even vital one for our day, and perhaps nowhere more so than in current America, which with its fractionalization and increasingly evident white supremacist sentiments seems to be moving ever more alarmingly toward the scenarios of intolerance that David's book is such an eloquent statement against.