Nagasaki by Éric Faye

Thanks to Gallic Books, another recent English translation of a French literary work is being published in 2014, Nagasaki, a slim novella inspired by a newspaper cutting of real life events.

Belgravia Books

Belgravia Bookshop offering Gallic Books and other translations

Shimura Kobo lives alone in a quiet suburban street, by day he works as a meteorologist, he rarely socialises with his colleagues, nor does he see family much, his life causes fewer ripples in Nagasaki than the weather he forecasts for it.

“There comes a time when nothing happens any more. The ribbon of destiny, stretched too wide, has snapped. There’s no more. The shockwave caused by your birth is far, oh so far, behind you now. That is modern life. Your existence spans the distance between failure and success. Between frost and the rising of sap.”

Recently there have been a few barely detectable disturbances to his inanimate way of living. A container of fruit juice seems to have lost a few centimetres, and isn’t there one yoghurt pot less than was there this morning? He begins to take extra care securing his home, yet still has the feeling of something not being quite right.

Nagasaki (2)He sets up a webcam in his home and sits at work watching his kitchen as if studying the meteorological charts, waiting to detect any sign of disturbance.

It is a brief story where the revelation comes early, its slow residual effect only beginning in the aftermath. About halfway the narrative shifts, adding to the mystery of how the revelation impacts Shimura, as we no longer have access to his thoughts.

That it is based on a true story is enough to haunt the reader, but the way Eric Faye narrates it, contributes to the way this story inhabits the mind as we read. Like the best stories, it stays with you long after reading and invites discussion with others about how such a thing could happen in our society.

And it will make you check your door locks more carefully.

 

Note: Thank you to Gallic Books for providing a copy of the book.

The Invention of Wings

Although Sue Monk Kidd will be a name familiar to many, it was only a few years ago that her book The Secret Life of Bees was recommended to me by a dear and special friend who always went out of his way to visit and spend a few days with us when making his 10 yearly pilgrimage to Rome. We always had wonderful discussions about books, about life, the situation in Palestine, our mutual family connections and much more. So when I saw that the author had published another novel, I wanted to read it, to remember that stories continue to be told and memories passed on, even when those who told them and recommended them are no longer with us. He would have loved this story I am sure.

Invention of WingsThe Invention of Wings is a work of historical fiction, inspired when the author came across their names at an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. The discovery of two sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké, abolitionists whose story was little known outside academic circles was all the more poignant for Sue Monk Kidd, when she learned they came from Charleston, South Carolina, the town she was living in at the time.

The story is a work of fiction, but the work of Sarah Grimké and her sister was real and her writing and achievements are receiving the recognition they deserve, representing as they did, an era when even a life of privilege did not give women the right to express a public opinion and especially one that challenged the status of individuals in a society.

In her novel, Sue Monk Kidd tells a story of two girls growing up in an urban slave-holding family in Charleston, South Carolina. Sarah is the daughter of a wealthy, aristocratic family and Hetty, or Handful as she is referred to, is gifted to her on her 11th birthday, an event that Sarah actively attempts to reject and does so in writing. She is refused her request, just as she is also denied and mocked for her desire to pursue a professional career, her punishment to be banned from her father’s library and from reading books.

For many years she accepts her fate, although as retribution and in response to a promise made to Charlotte (Handful’s mother), she teaches Handful to read, not only a forbidden act, but against the law. Certain events eventually shake off her complacency and after one particular episode, despite the risk of rejection and ostracism by her family and community she becomes wedded to her new vocation and dares not only to voice her outrage but with the support of her sister begins to take a more active and dangerous role in standing against slavery and advocating equal rights for women.

WingsThe slave Hetty also possesses a rebellious streak, more dangerous in someone of her stature, where any small infraction can result in violent and damaging consequences, as she will discover. Denied an education, she and her mother Charlotte become talented seamstresses, Charlotte narrating her life story through the quilted squares she creates in her own time, each one representing a significant event in her life, images that speak the words she could not read or write, a reminder of who they are, where they have been, stories continually passed from mother to daughter. It was a way to subvert the system and to preserve her story.

In a sense both Sarah and Hetty are enslaved and Hetty articulates it in a scene that haunts Sarah long after.

“I’m twenty-seven-years old, Handful, and this is my life now.” She looked around the room, up at the chandelier, and back at me. “This is my life. Right here for the rest of my days.” Her voice broke as she covered her mouth with her hand.

She was trapped same as me, but she was trapped by her mind, by the minds of people around her, not by the law. At the African church, Mr Vesey used to say, Be careful, you can get enslaved twice, once in your body and once in your mind.

I tried to tell her that. I said, “My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way round.”

Wings are a metaphor for freedom from oppression but they also represent the ability to soar, not only to be able to choose what we want to do and how to live a life, but to do it to the best of one’s ability, to step beyond the expectations of family, community, society.

Sarah Grimké (1792-1873)

Sarah Grimké (1792-1873)

I thought this book was excellent and I like it all the more for having understood subsequently how it came about. The female characters are particularly vivid, especially Handful and her mother Charlotte and though Sarah took time to come to terms with her own vocation and to shed the trappings of her upbringing, she is an incredibly courageous character given society had rather dismissed her given her disappointment in not being able to pursue a career or attracting the right kind of husband.

When asked about writing from the perspective of an enslaved character, Sue Monk Kidd mentioned that while writing this book she read an interview with Alice Walker in which she says “She was all over my heart, so why shouldn’t she be in literature”, exactly how she felt about Handful.

I also wondered about the author’s reasons for embracing such a story, her own connections to America’s history in the South and in the links below is a Reader’s Guide in which she speaks of her own upbringing in the South in the fifties and sixties, where she was witness to many terrible racial injustices and divides, which has had the effect of drawing her towards writing about them.

“I’ve been drawn to write about racial themes because they are part of me, and also because they matter deeply to me. I can’t help but feel a social responsibility about it as a writer. Racism is the great wound and sin of the South and indeed, the great wound and original sin of America. Two hundred and forty-six years of slavery was an American holocaust, and its legacy is racism. I don’t think we’ve fully healed the wound or eradicated the sin. For all the great strides we’ve made, that legacy still lingers.” Sue Monk Kidd

Additional Links

A Readers Guide – Q & A with Sue Monk Kidd

Interview with Oprah - Sue Monk Kidd chats with Oprah and takes Reader’s Questions

Note: This book was provided by the publisher Viking, an imprint of the Penguin Group.

Daphne’s Dilemma – Part II

Click here To Read Daphne’s Dilemma – Part I first

Annie was my first horse. No thoroughbred, she was what some might call an ‘old nag’, not tall enough to be called a horse, just an unexceptional, somewhat lazy pony.

Chocolate brown and rotund, she liked to spend her days grazing in the paddock getting fatter and fatter. She was slow and patient and a good pony for my sister and I to ride on, though she did have a couple of stubborn habits. Sometimes she would turn her head when we put our foot in the stirrup and try to nip us on the backside.

She also had a habit of pulling her head down quickly to eat grass if we paused for a few seconds. Knowing this, we kept a firm grip on the reins to prevent her from eating, to which she would retaliate by throwing her head forward with a sudden jerk, flinging the reins out of our hands. Sliding down her neck to rest behind her ears, the reins then became impossible to reach without dismounting. We had to climb off, lead her alongside a log to give us extra height so our feet could reach the stirrup, or find a sheep track on a steep part of the hillside so we could jump back on, hoping she didn’t move while we attempted such daredevil tactics.

Annie had been pregnant and due to give birth. We had stopped riding her and Dad had put her in a different paddock from where she was usually kept. Every day she would come up to the fence so she could see the other horses in the adjoining paddocks, until that day she stopped coming.

“That’s strange” Dad had said, “I haven’t seen Annie. Perhaps she has had her foal and moved away from the fence-line to be nearer water.” Steep limestone cliffs lay beyond the trees where the soil was damp from underground water springs. It is a dangerous area, my father later agreed, but animals have good instincts he’d said.

Limestone CliffsImages of water, slippery rock and a pregnant horse left me with a sick feeling in my stomach and that racing heart. A heavy black cloud descended as we waited for Dad to return from his search, one we were forbidden to participate in. He returned alone. He had found Annie lying bloated and very dead at the foot of one of the cliffs. She had been about to give birth, he said.

I wished I had gone searching for her the day before, I wished we could have anticipated the risk, I wished so hard that we could rewind those days and she would be back up at the fence-line neighing to the other horses. I did not mind that she was bad-tempered, ate too much and tried to bite us, I just wanted her back and to remove forever that terrible helpless feeling in the pit of my stomach.

*

I walk up to the cottage when I see the distant figures of cow, man and dog disappear out of sight behind the trees between the airstrip and the shepherd’s cottage. When I arrive, there is Daphne, fat as ever but no calf. Dad leads her to the steel gate that opens into the main paddock in front of the house. Opening the gate right back on its hinges, he sandwiches her into the space between the gate and the fence. There is no chance of her bolting.

Now that she is standing still, I can see a tiny pair of hooves emerging from the much swollen, pink, fleshy area beneath her tail. I am told she is having difficulty and seems to have given up pushing. Dad rolls up his sleeves just like he would on a lambing beat, to lend a helping hand. Literally. He puts his hand inside that swollen, pink, fleshy area and tries to get a grip further up the protruding legs to assist the calf to come out. The legs emerge a little further but nothing more.

“It’s a big calf alright” he says as he tries again, “but she doesn’t wanna budge.” I walk to the corner where the gate meets the fence to check out Daphne’s face. She has an angry look, I struggle to find any glimmer of recognition in those big frowning, brown eyes.

She is flicking her tail down the other end, back and forth like a fly swat. It is easy to see she is not impressed with her captivity or the interference with her private cow parts. She will get used to it though, this is to become a familiar setting, to be locked in a tight holding area while my father sits on his small wooden stool in front of her hind leg to commence with the ritual morning teat pulling,  ‘milking the house-cow’ as we say.

After a few more attempts at hand assisted birth, Dad comes up with the idea to tie a rope around the calf’s ankles and pull it out. He knows he must be careful not to pull too quickly, as this could endanger Daphne’s reproductive equipment. He must be careful in case those contracting muscles suddenly give way, that could land him and the calf on the ground with a heavy thump, another scenario he wishes to avoid. He pulls as carefully and as strongly as he dares, but still nothing more than the front legs emerge. Daphne is beginning to protest. She starts to bellow loudly and tries to sit down. She has had enough.

“Get up you old bitch” Dad bellows back, thumping his hand on her rump. I cast him my own angry look but keep silent. I know she has to stay standing and the calf has to get out, we could lose them both if she gives up.

“Come on Daphne, you can do it” I say under my breath, just like I did two years ago while leading her around the obstacle course at the agricultural calf club day at school.

Finally Dad announces that he is going to get the tractor. The tractor! What is he going to do with the tractor?

He comes back with his old Massey Ferguson tractor and parks it in front of Daphne’s rear end. He ties the rope to the tractor, puts it in its lowest gear and very slowly inches it forward until the head of the calf emerges, followed by a loud bellow from Daphne.

Leaving the tractor running in neutral, he pulls on the hand brake, jumps out of the seat and returns to the calf just in time to catch it as it makes its first tumble into the outside world.

The calf is covered in a light, greasy film and as Dad moves the tractor away, I close the gate to let Daphne move from her confined position. She immediately turns around, puts her head down, sniffs her new-born calf and begins licking it.

The calf puts its front legs forward and tries to lift itself off the ground. The first attempt is unsuccessful; he is a little unsteady on his feet. But with the second attempt he manages to stand and begins to butt at his mother, searching for that universal elixir of life, ‘mother’s milk’.

The End

Daphne's Calf

Daphne’s Calf

Daphne’s Dilemma – Part I

Daphne is pregnant.

She is no longer my teat sucking, sun frolicking pet calf, she has matured into a fully grown cow. She doesn’t even look like my Daphne anymore – but I know it is her because I recognize the familiar black and white patchwork pelt she wears and she still walks up to me in the paddock, something no other cow will do.

I no longer feed her milk from a bottle, nor offer my hand to her once willing, hungry mouth; the welcome teat substitute she liked to suckle in a noisy rhythmic motion, her rough sand-paper like tongue producing sticky foam milk bubbles from the sides of her mouth. She is almost ready for milking now. We will be digesting the warm, nutritious contents of her udder with our Weet-Bix very soon.

CowWhen I say she doesn’t look like my Daphne anymore, it is her face that I am referring to. When she was a calf she had an eager, yearning sort of facial expression, a hungry face, hungry for her next feed and starving for my affection. Now she has a mature cow’s face – I’ve noticed that with all the calves, when they grow up they stop smiling. Something happens as their facial features mature that makes their grown up expression more like a frown than a smile, they no longer exhibit the contentedness of frolicking calves, high on powdered milk and the scent of fresh spring pastures.

So Daphne has a mature grown up look now, but despite this I know she remembers me, even though those baby calf memories of less than two years ago for me, are the equivalent of nine cow years ago for her.

Sweet scented Daphne is both my mother’s favorite fragrant, flowering shrub and the name of her mother, our Nana. I have always loved this name and thought that everyone would understand and appreciate the gesture, to name my pet calf after my very dear grandmother and something sweet-smelling and adored by my mother. Unfortunately my parents didn’t agree, though they allowed me to keep the name, they just made sure that Nana was never to learn of the esteemed honor I had gifted her.

Daphne is really fat now, she has a baby calf inside her and this morning at breakfast Dad announced she is ready to drop. At lunch there is a call from a neighbor to say he has seen a cow in distress down by the airstrip gate. Although I don’t hear the words myself, I can tell from what Dad is saying that it is my Daphne. I know because I feel this terrible pain in my chest and stomach, my heart is beating way too fast, there is a dry lump in my throat and I can’t even finish my favourite cold roast lamb and home-made chutney sandwich. I haven’t experienced a feeling like this since Annie died.

“Better go take a look” Dad says, placing the receiver of the party line telephone back on its cradle and ringing off one short to let callers know the line is free. There are few secrets in this neighborhood when four families share one telephone line and bored operators sit with nothing better to do than listen in. I imagine by tonight everyone will have heard about Daphne.

“I’m coming too” I say, pushing back my chair and getting up from the table.

“No, you stay put for now, finish your lunch and help your mother clean up first. I’ll bring ‘er up to the yards next to the shepherd’s cottage. You can meet us up there. It’s best not to have too many people around, you know they’re warrant to get a bit spooked and we don’t want ‘er taking fright and bolting off down by that big hole.”

“Alright” I mutter, slumping back in my chair, arms crossed, appetite ruined. I know what he says makes sense, though I don’t believe she will be scared off because of me. More likely those yapping dogs that never listen when you shout ‘Shut Up!’ or ‘Get in behind!’ I’d like to say, but don’t.

Animals’ giving birth is a common and natural event in the spring, although here it is more common to see thousands of sheep giving birth, not so many cows and a very large pet giving birth is a new experience for us. Pet lambs always go back into the main flock before they became adult sheep, so we never know whether they give birth or not, but despite the familiarity with animals giving birth, I am worried about Daphne.

I too have matured in these past two years, I am about to go off to boarding school in the city away from my family; I know I am old enough not to become attached to farm animals, but somewhere in a dark chamber of my mind, a closed-door of slumbering memories has drifted open and I cannot stop the rush of disturbing flashbacks which enter my mind and begin to replay that terrible thing that happened to Annie.

Daphne’s Dilemma – Part II 

All the Birds, Singing

All the BirdsAn Australian woman named Jake Whyte has bought a farm on an unnamed remote island somewhere off the coast of England and although she has lived there alone for years, it is as if she has only just arrived, there is reticence, suspicion, distrust, an unwillingness to engage, to form new relationships or retain old ones.

In the opening paragraphs she visits a farm shop and we don’t get any sense that they know each other, there is no acknowledgment of neighbourly acquaintance. She is suffering from the violent loss of yet another of her 50 sheep that she farms with the help of her dog, Dog.

As the present day narrative progresses towards the mystery of the creature that is mauling her flock of sheep, alternate chapters reveal her past in Australia, from a point some years ago when she was working in a shearing gang back through a year or so living in remote countryside with a man, to her adolescent years and the significant event that caused her to run the first time. Is she a fugitive?

I was intrigued by the references to farm life and her stint working in a shearing gang, experiences I am familiar with. I grew up on a large sheep farm, and remember the job of ‘rousie’ (a wool handler) as we call it in New Zealand, not only working during school holidays helping out at home, but I spent a summer when I was 17 working for a local shearing gang on other farms in the area, although it did not involve handing the sheep to the shearer and I couldn’t quite get my head around how anyone could do that for four shearers without getting in the way.

Being a rousie was the most physically demanding job I have ever had (more so than the summer picking pumpkins, another in a vegetable patch, the kiwifruit orchard and that unforgettable summer job in a large freezing works/slaughterhouse).

Working in a shearing gang can feel a little like qualifying for an Olympic event, because while the rousie, responsible for removing the wool off the floor out of the way of the shearer as it falls from the sheep, separating the clean from the dirty wool, is paid by the hour, the shearer is paid by the sheep/lamb.

The more sheep they can shear, the more they will earn and there are indeed big competitions and world records (see David Fagan below) for those who can shear a sheep the fastest, without nicking or cutting them –something the farmer keeps an eye on when he releases the shorn sheep from the pen, there’ll be a few harsh words to any shearer increasing his rate at the expense of bloodying those precious ewes.

The photos below are taken from a visit to my father’s farm three years ago, now that he has retired, he created this one stand woolshed by converting part of an old cowshed.  The shearer shears, while Grandpa explains to the children what happens.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The female narrator of Evie Wyld’s novel is tough, to be a female sheep shearer is as rare as Scottish sumo wrestling and not for the faint-hearted. Gender demarcation lines in the shearing shed haven’t changed much over the last century.

“The shed smells good. Sweat and dung, lanolin and turps. I can’t imagine being away from it.”

Ironically for all her distrust, she does allow a complete stranger to take up residence for the few days over which the story is told. He is something of a metaphor for her tendency to succumb to the one impulsive act that in her past has lead her astray and required an escape.

In that respect it could be a coming-of-age story, but there is much in terms of her character that is stunted, damaged, unresolved, that I am not sure she has transformed much, if at all by the end of the novel. It shows how an unresolved past will continue to haunt the present, if not healed.

It was an interesting read though somewhat unfulfilling for me, I had read quite a lot about it so perhaps I had higher expectations or maybe it was because I was less tolerant of the controlled narrative, I don’t mind the presence of a narrative framework as long as it doesn’t impose too much on the reading experience.

The writing was excellent and often that can be enough when the threads of a narrative don’t tie up as we want them to and certainly I am interested in reading more of her work, she is a talented writer and was worthy candidate for the Baileys Women’s Prize, though sadly this title did not make it to the shortlist.

Further Viewing

The History of Sheep Shearing in New Zealand – a wonderful short film from the NZ archives demonstrating the shearing technique.

The Golden Shears – the Olympics of Sheep Shearing – David Fagan, world record holder, 14 seconds.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon

I thought I still had quite a few pages left in my current notebook until I opened it just now to discover 20 pages of predatory animals and prehistoric looking reptiles wreaking havoc across the lines. Trying to keep an energetic 11-year-old amused in a waiting room, I lent him my notebook and black pen for a short period and this is a sample of what now intersperses my less animated prose. And I see his sister has been in here as well, quite different styles.

So with Spring well and truly here, it is time to start afresh, so a new notebook seems appropriate.

But back to my unadorned scribble within, now transferred to the screen.

Shadow of the CrescentThis novel was longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and it was a title I had not heard of, but a name that looked familiar. Which it is, the Bhutto family name is renowned in Pakistan politics as is its tragic link with political assassination. Fatima Bhutto is part of that family, though she has said she is not interested in pursuing a political career, preferring to express herself in poetry and now this, her first novel.

It wasn’t the blurb so much that drew me to the book, it was that unique perspective that can be present in someone who has lived across different cultures and is equally at home in the East and in the West for example the Turkish writer Elif Shafak.

Fatima Bhutto was born in Afghanistan, raised in Syria, educated in the US and now lives in Pakistan. The kind of cultural traversing of frontiers that could potentially give a writer a unique perspective, no? And didn’t she once date George Clooney? Okay, not relevant, but then maybe it is.

Set in a town called Mir Ali, the story takes place over a period of three and a half hours and the chapters are labelled 9.00, 9.25, 9.53 and so on until Noon. The prologue is at 8.30am in a white house in Mir Ali on the day of the festival of Eid (the end of Ramadan). The bazaar is opening, rain threatens and a fog blankets the rooftops.

Three brothers live with their widowed mother, one of whom is married and lives on the upper floor. The brothers are Aman Erum the eldest and most recently returned home from studying in the US after the death of their father, Sikander, the middle married brother who is a doctor and Hayat, the youngest who attends meetings and seems uncertain of himself.

“Most Pakistanis thought of Mir Ali with the same hostility they reserved for India or Bangladesh; insiders – traitor – who fought their way out of the body and somehow made it on their own without the glory of the crescent moon and the star shining overhead.

But the shadow of that moon never faded over Mir Ali. It hung over its sky night after night, condemning the town to life under its shadow.”

Over breakfast, they discuss where they will each separately pray that day, not wishing to be at the same mosque should there be any danger, the first time they have done this.

“No one prays together, travels in pairs, or eats out in groups. It is how they live now, alone.”

The chapters alternate between the three brothers following their movements or reflecting on their recent past although this wasn’t clear until the end when I went back to try to understand why I felt after reading the entire book, I didn’t know the youngest brother at all and could make such little sense of the other two.

Fatima BhuttoThe character who stood out the most for me was Sikander’s wife Mina who rescues the narrative with her odd behaviour of looking up public notices of funerals and making her way to the homes of the grieving families. Something is wrong here and Bhutto has the reader in the palm of her hand teasing out what is going on with Mina and the reluctance of her husband to intervene.

Despite the format of alternative chapters for each brother, Hayat’s are very short and of little depth, which may be deliberate, but this has the effect of making him an inconsequential participant in the narrative. The first chapter on Aman makes up 20% of the novel and I almost gave up here due to the style of telling, the introduction of his childhood sweetheart Samarra providing some relief.

It was when we met Sikander that the pace picked up and the characters became more real and interesting, due in part to the odd behaviour of his wife.

The novel was heading for Noon while filling in back story and narrating an extraordinary event that Sikander and his wife encounter; the reader is anticipating something about to happen and the use of the clock is like the count down and I turn the page anticipating… well not anticipating…

Acknowledgements. The End.

I really wanted to enjoy this book, as I did with Elif Shafak’s Honour, The Forty Rules of Love and The Bastard of Istanbul , as she seamlessly traverses the East West cultural divide, but I found it lacked too many essential elements that I was unable to ignore and played into too many post 9/11 clichés, leaving little room for hope or healing.

Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2014

Baileys logoThings are a little busy in this part of my world currently, but I have just seen the announcement of the shortlist of the Baileys Women’s Prize and given the result, I don’t feel so bad about not having yet written reviews of two novels that were on the longlist, that I recently read.

They were Fatima Bhutto’s The Shadow of the Crescent Moon and Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing. I am sorry to say that I did not enjoy either of them.

But on to the shortlist!

The six novels chosen are:

Americanah (2)

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - my review here

A story of love and reflections on race via a young man and woman from Nigeria who face difficult choices and challenges in the countries they come to call home and on their return.

Goldfinch

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

10-year-old Theo steals a painting from an Amsterdam gallery after his mother dies.

Lowland

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Two Bengali brothers growing up in 1960s Calcutta.

burial rites

Burial Rights by Hannah Kent

A woman is condemned to death in Iceland,  inspired by true events.

Girl Half

A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride

 Experimental novel written in the second-person, “you” being the narrator’s fiercely loved, brain-damaged brother.

Undertaking

The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

A marriage marked by cruelty and violence, a husband who spends nights hurting Jewish children and comes home to a wife who never asks questions.

***

Very happy indeed to see Americanah on the list and although it is the only one I have read, I have been championing this title since it came out last year.

I will definitely be reading The Goldfinch, though probably not until August as I am saving it for my summer chunkster beach read and I am sure it be perfect for that.  I think i will have to track down Burial Rites next, I have been talking about this Icelandic novel for too long without having read a page!

 

So which one of these appeals to you to read next?