Women’s Prize For Fiction 2019 Longlist

Between 1996 and 2012 it was known as the Orange Prize for Fiction, and between 2014 and 2017 the Baileys Prize for Fiction, the Women’s Prize for Fiction is a favourite literary award of many, awarded annually to an outstanding novel that demonstrates excellence, quality, originality and accessibility.

The Prize has recently evolved to charitable status as The Women’s Prize Trust and now invites anyone who wishes to contribute to its ongoing success, to support it through their donation lead Patron Scheme, which offers varying levels of participation and reward.

Their charitable objectives seek to honour & celebrate the widest possible range of women’s voices and stories from all over the world by:

  • shining a spotlight on overlooked and forgotten women’s stories
  • promoting gender equality
  • supporting literacy, research and educational initiatives to help inspire the readers & the writers of tomorrow
  • providing a year-round digital platform for women’s voices and offering a range of live events, encouraging debate between readers & writers.

After passionate discussion, the judges of 2019 have come up with the following longlist of 16 novels, the Chair, Professor Kate Williams had this to say:

“I am thrilled to share this longlist – sixteen incredible books by a diverse group of women, from the UK and countries across the world, all brilliant stories that sweep you into another world. Each of them have been a privilege to read, and they have taken us into places a million miles from each other, exploring the lives of women and men in so many different but utterly compelling ways.”

I have copied the book summaries below from the Women’s Prize website  and provided title links to Book Depository, if you wish to buy a book (with free shipping). Personally, I have read two, the excellent Man Booker Prize winning Milkman by Anna Burns (my review here) and Bernice McFadden’s Praise Song for the Butterflies (my review here), which I enjoyed so much, I ordered her historical fiction novel The Book of Harlan.

The Greek myth retellings seem to be in the ascendant, I like that they’ve chosen empowered female heroines, I have a copy of Freshwater, which from the moment I read its premise I’ve wanted to read, so I’ll definitely be reading that.

I’ve read Mexican born author Valeria Luiselli’s essays Sidewalks her novel stands out, as it was born of her experience as a volunteer court interpreter for children – the “illegal aliens” helping them with intake questionnaires that might establish a case for asylum for them, the subject of another essay collection Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions. In Lost Children Archive, she tells the story of one family, though don’t expect a straight forward narrative, as I recall from reading her previously, she’s an introspective, philosophical meanderer interested in spaces, voids and the edges of things, not a traditional storyteller.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker – There was a woman at the heart of the Trojan war whose voice has been silent – till now. Briseis was a queen until her city was destroyed. Now she is a slave to Achilles, the man who butchered her husband and brothers. Trapped in a world defined by men, can she survive to become the author of her own story?Discover the greatest Greek myth of all – retold by the witness history forgot.

Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton – It is 1910 and Philadelphia is burning. The last place Spring wants to be is in the rundown, coloured section of a hospital surrounded by the groans of sick people and the ghost of her dead sister. But as her son Edward lays dying, she has no other choice. There’re whispers that Edward drove a streetcar into a shop window. Some people think it was an accident, others claim that it was his fault, the police are certain that he was part of a darker agenda. Is he guilty? Can they find the truth? All Spring knows is that time is running out. She has to tell him the story of how he came to be. With the help of her dead sister, newspaper clippings and reconstructed memories, she must find a way to get through to him. To shatter the silences that governed her life, she will do everything she can to lead him home.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite – When Korede’s dinner is interrupted one night by a distress call from her sister, Ayoola, she knows what’s expected of her: bleach, rubber gloves, nerves of steel and a strong stomach. This’ll be the third boyfriend Ayoola’s dispatched in, quote, self-defence and the third mess that her lethal little sibling has left Korede to clear away. She should probably go to the police for the good of the menfolk of Nigeria, but she loves her sister and, as they say, family always comes first. Until, that is, Ayoola starts dating the doctor where Korede works as a nurse. Korede’s long been in love with him, and isn’t prepared to see him wind up with a knife in his back: but to save one would mean sacrificing the other

The Pisces by Melissa Broder – Lucy has been writing her dissertation for nine years when she and her boyfriend have a dramatic break up. After she hits rock bottom, her sister in Los Angeles insists that Lucy dog-sit for the summer. Staying in a gorgeous house on Venice Beach, Lucy can find little relief from her anxiety – not in the Greek chorus of women in her love addiction therapy group, not in her frequent Tinder excursions, not even in Dominic the dog’s easy affection. Everything changes when Lucy becomes entranced by an eerily attractive swimmer while sitting alone on the beach rocks one night. But when Lucy learns the truth about his identity, their relationship, and Lucy’s understanding of what love should look like, take a very unexpected turn.

Milkman by Anna Burns – In this unnamed city, to be interesting is dangerous. Middle sister, our protagonist, is busy attempting to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman. But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes ‘interesting’. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous. Milkman is a tale of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness. It is the story of inaction with enormous consequences.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi – Ada was born with one foot on the other side. Having prayed her into existence, her parents Saul and Saachi struggle to deal with the volatile and contradictory spirits peopling their troubled girl.When Ada comes of age and heads to college, the entities within her grow in power and agency. An assault leads to a crystallization of her selves: Asughara and Saint Vincent. As Ada fades into the background of her own mind and these selves – now protective, now hedonistic – seize control of Ada, her life spirals in a dark and dangerous direction.Narrated from the perspectives of the various selves within Ada, and based in the author’s realities, Freshwater explores the metaphysics of identity and being. Feeling explodes through the language of this scalding novel, heralding the arrival of a fierce new literary voice.

Ordinary People by Diana Evans – South London, 2008. Two couples find themselves at a moment of reckoning, on the brink of acceptance or revolution. Melissa has a new baby and doesn’t want to let it change her but, in the crooked walls of a narrow Victorian terrace, she begins to disappear. Michael, growing daily more accustomed to his commute, still loves Melissa but can’t quite get close enough to her to stay faithful. Meanwhile out in the suburbs, Stephanie is happy with Damian and their three children, but the death of Damian’s father has thrown him into crisis – or is it something, or someone, else? Are they all just in the wrong place? Are any of them prepared to take the leap?

Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott – In the autumn of 1975, after two decades of intimate friendships, Truman Capote detonated a literary grenade, forever rupturing the elite circle he’d worked so hard to infiltrate. Why did he do it, knowing what he stood to lose? Was it to punish them? To make them pay for their manners, money and celebrated names? Or did he simply refuse to believe that they could ever stop loving him? Whatever the motive, one thing remains indisputable: nine years after achieving wild success with In Cold Blood, Capote committed an act of professional and social suicide with his most lethal of weapons . . . Words.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones – Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of the American Dream. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. Until one day they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit.Devastated and unmoored, Celestial finds herself struggling to hold on to the love that has been her centre, taking comfort in Andre, their closest friend. When Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, he returns home ready to resume their life together.A masterpiece of storytelling, An American Marriage offers a profoundly insightful look into the hearts and minds of three unforgettable characters who are at once bound together and separated by forces beyond their control.

Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lilian Li – The popular Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland has been serving devoted regulars for decades, but behind the staff’s professional smiles simmer tensions, heartaches and grudges from decades of bustling restaurant life.Owner Jimmy Han has ambitions for a new high-end fusion place, hoping to eclipse his late father’s homely establishment. Jimmy’s older brother, Johnny, is more concerned with restoring the dignity of the family name than his faltering relationship with his own teenaged daughter, Annie. Nan and Ah-Jack, longtime Duck House employees, year to turn their thirty-year friendship into something more, while Nan’s son, Pat, struggles to stay out of trouble. When disaster strikes and Pat and Annie find themselves in a dangerous game that means tragedy for the Duck House, their families must finally confront the conflicts and loyalties simmering beneath the red and gold lanterns.

Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn – When Alina’s brother-in-law defects to the West, she and her husband become persons of interest to the secret services, causing both of their careers to come grinding to a halt.As the strain takes its toll on their marriage, Alina turns to her aunt for help – the wife of a communist leader and a secret practitioner of the old folk ways.Set in 1970s communist Romania, Sophie van Llewyn’s novella-in-flash draws upon magic realism to weave a tale of everyday troubles, that can’t be put down.

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli – A family in New York packs the car and sets out on a road trip. A mother, a father, a boy and a girl, they head south-west, to the Apacheria, the regions of the US which used to be Mexico. They drive for hours through desert and mountains. They stop at diners when they’re hungry and sleep in motels when it gets dark. The little girl tells surreal knock knock jokes and makes them all laugh. The little boy educates them all and corrects them when they’re wrong. The mother and the father are barely speaking to each other. Meanwhile, thousands of children are journeying north, travelling to the US border from Central America and Mexico. A grandmother or aunt has packed a backpack for them, putting in a bible, one toy, some clean underwear. They have been met by a coyote: a man who speaks to them roughly and frightens them. They cross a river on rubber tubing and walk for days, saving whatever food and water they can. Then they climb to the top of a train and travel precariously in the open container on top. Not all of them will make it to the border.

Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden – Abeo Kata lives a comfortable, happy life in West Africa as the privileged nine-year-old daughter of a government employee and stay-at-home mother. But when the Katas’ idyllic lifestyle takes a turn for the worse, Abeo’s father, following his mother’s advice, places her in a religious shrine, hoping that the sacrifice of his daughter will serve as religious atonement for the crimes of his ancestors. Unspeakable acts befall Abeo for the fifteen years she is enslaved within the shrine. When she is finally rescued, broken and battered, she must struggle to overcome her past, endure the revelation of family secrets, and learn to trust and love again.

Circe by Madeline Miller – In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe has neither the look nor the voice of divinity, and is scorned and rejected by her kin. Increasingly isolated, she turns to mortals for companionship, leading her to discover a power forbidden to the gods: witchcraft.When love drives Circe to cast a dark spell, wrathful Zeus banishes her to the remote island of Aiaia. There she learns to harness her occult craft, drawing strength from nature. But she will not always be alone; many are destined to pass through Circe’s place of exile, entwining their fates with hers. The messenger god, Hermes. The craftsman, Daedalus. A ship bearing a golden fleece. And wily Odysseus, on his epic voyage home.There is danger for a solitary woman in this world, and Circe’s independence draws the wrath of men and gods alike. To protect what she holds dear, Circe must decide whether she belongs with the deities she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss – Teenage Silvie and her parents are living in a hut in Northumberland as an exercise in experimental archaeology. Her father is a difficult man, obsessed with imagining and enacting the harshness of Iron Age life. Haunting Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a young woman sacrificed by those closest to her, and the landscape both keeps and reveals the secrets of past violence and ritual as the summer builds to its harrowing climax.

Normal People by Sally Rooney -Connell and Marianne grow up in the same small town in rural Ireland. The similarities end there; they are from very different worlds. When they both earn places at Trinity College in Dublin, a connection that has grown between them lasts long into the following years. This is an exquisite love story about how a person can change another person’s life – a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel. It tells us how difficult it is to talk about how we feel and it tells us – blazingly – about cycles of domination, legitimacy and privilege. Alternating menace with overwhelming tenderness, Sally Rooney’s second novel breathes fiction with new life.

******

So have you read any of these or are you planning to?

Further Reading

Interview Valeria Luiselli: ‘Children chase after life, even if it ends up killing them’
by Emma Brockes, the Guardian

The Atlas of Reds and Blues by Devi S. Laskar

I discovered this debut novel after seeing an article on Electric Lit by author R.O. Kwon 48 Books By Women and Nonbinary Authors of Color to Read in 2019. I recognised many, but a new name that jumped out at me was debut author Devi S. Laskar.

Kwon added the book to her list based on a recommendation by writer, editor and professor Kiese Laymon, who said he’d “never read a novel that does nearly as much in so few pages,” and that the book is “as narratively beautiful as it is brutal.”

If that wasn’t enough, Nayomi Munaweera, author of the excellent Island of a Thousand Mirrors, and What Lies Between Us said:

“Devi S .Laskar has written a beautiful, harrowing fever dream of a novel. This is a book that insists on no uncertain terms and despite horrific institutional and everyday racism that South Asian Americans are indeed Americans. This is a book I have been waiting a very long time for. A monumental achievement.”

Before telling you about the novel, I’ll just share that I found it masterful. I hadn’t meant to read it too quickly, but I was so entranced and captivated by it, by the voice, by the structure, by its fierce intelligence and grasp of so many aspects, that I couldn’t help myself but read it in two sittings. However, I recommend you take your time, as it deserves close reading.

I’ve since looked at it again and tried to analyse what the author has done, how this novel, that is also an essay, a social commentary, a dual narrative of one characters perspective, past and present, works. It’s a stunning piece of literature, thoroughly deserved of the praise mentioned above. I would love to see it make tonight’s shortlist for the Women’s Fiction Prize 2019.

Review

The Atlas of Reds and Blues takes place over the course of a morning. In the opening line, a woman we will come to know as The Mother has just been shot in her driveway:

Now this fainting, this falling, this landing so ungainly.

A working mother whose husband is often away on business moves her family from Atlanta to the suburbs, discovering not much has changed since her childhood in a small Southern town.

She embodies a second generation American experience, viewed through vivid snippets of her working and family life, looking back, recounting memories that have lead to this moment. It is told by one character but in a dual narrative, (1) the semi-conscious present moment, a stream-of-consciousness awareness of what she sees, hears, smells, feels and wonders, lying there unmoving and (2) short chapters of the past, both recent as The Mother and further back as the Real Thing, daughter of Bengali immigrants. All the characters are referred to with labels such as Baby Sister, Middle Daughter, her hero, man of the hour, similar to Anna Burns’s Milkman.

The present moment narrative arrives in short staccato-like bursts, sometimes a sentence, maybe two, a snatch of dialogue, an unbidden memory, a flash of blue sky, a moment of lucidity. This a more lengthy example:

“She closes her eyes and a kaleidoscope appears, the blue of the sky giving way to the red pulse of pain near her stomach…The pain is less when she doesn’t give in to the light show. But the light show is hard to ignore: every time she opens or closes her eyes, the blues and blood reds are reinvented; she is witnessing the continents shifting, the tectonic plates of years shifting and crashing into each other.”

It is a beautiful, bittersweet cornucopia of blues and reds, colours littered throughout the text alluding to a multitude of contrasts.

Though ostensibly a novel, on closer rereading, I wonder if it has elements of an essay, something I have a heightened awareness of at the moment, after attending a wonderful talk last week by writer Jennifer Delahunty entitled ‘The Art and Power of the Personal Essay, from Montaigne to Zadie Smith’.

Asked about the difference between the essay and an Op-Ed (Opinion Editorial) she described the essay as posing a question the writer is able to explore without necessarily positing an opinion, the intention being to encourage engagement with the subject by the reader.

Our protagonist lying bleeding on her driveway, poses questions that the ensuing chapters serve to explore. She uses the symbol of the doll to illustrate the complexity of being non-white growing up in America and thus poses her question.

Like children, most dolls are made only to be seen, put on display. Real live dolls are taught to remain stoic, bear witness in silence, no matter how the consumer judges. The radio dispatcher squawks and a policeman’s voice describes her: Black hair. Brown skin. Gray sweatpants. Brown T-shirt. Flip-flops.

The dispatcher’s voice drawls.  “Is she Black?” A lawn mower sputters to life nearby and drowns out the policeman’s reply.

Third Monday of May 2010. When you put American clothes on a brown-skinned doll, what do people see? The clothes? Or the whole doll? Or only the skin?

Fifty or so pages later, another reference:

The question can be stripped bare, a striped white line on the highway separating those stuck in traffic from those who are flying down the road: Has anything of significance changed in the last forty-three years?

There is a section entitled Inciting Incidents:

…in which the narrator attempts to decide which particular incident set her on the path of this particular life story, concrete driveway and all, without sprinkling regret and bitterness over everything upon which she stews, without uttering the word no…

Fourteen potential inciting incidents follow, thought-provoking turning points in the Mother’s life, incidents that culminate over time, leading to resistance or acceptance. The first time they read as more experiences, the second time I read more closely looking for the incident, seeing the accumulation of “isms” she has encountered as a woman of colour in the workplace, a neighbour, wife, sister and mother to daughters in today’s America.

What does it mean truly, to be invisible? Her stillness, her ability to remain calm while high-decibel insults are hurled inches from her face and ears. To pretend nothing has been said. To pretend deafness. Or her chameleon’s ability to blend in, a nondescript body in a dark blouse and black jeans leaning against the pay phone at the hospital waiting room, or standing outside the courtroom’s double doors or by the fire engine at the crime scene, yellow do not cross tape isolating one place from its larger context. To pretend the oak tree across the street’s steadfast patience, to pretend paralysis. To watch but pretend blindness. Never look anyone on the eye. Or maybe restraint. Knowing her lack of reaction is the only thing keeping her alive, over and again. Knowing the first time she hits back is the last time she’ll ever have the opportunity to do so.

Laskar is first and foremost a poet, so while it may have been described as harrowing, it also illuminates. Her captivating prose and lyrical repetition draw the reader in, creating a desire to unravel the mystery her many literary devices allude to, to step back from the pieces and see the whole. The book’s structure is inspired by one of her favorite poetry forms, the pantoum, a Malayan folk poem or verse form. In a pantoum, a phrase is repeated throughout, subtle changes in meaning occur due to different contexts.

 “This book is one giant pantoum because the beginning is the end, and she’s considering things over and over.” Devi S. Laskar

It was also partly inspired by a raid on her home, where a gun was pointed at her and she experienced her life flash in front of her eyes.

Almost impossible to review, it is a thought-provoking, unique novel that I haven’t stopped thinking about long after finishing it. Brilliant. Highly Recommended, likely to be one of my favourite reads of 2019.

Buy a Copy of The Atlas of Reds and Blues via Book Depository

N.B. Thank you kindly to Counterpoint Press for sending me a copy to review.

Every Light in the House Burnin’ by Andrea Levy

Sadly the wonderful author Andrea Levy, well-known for her Orange Prize winning novel Small Island (2004), passed away on February 14, 2019. I remember reading it when I lived in London and the joy of a new literary prize that highlighted exactly the kind of stories and authors I liked to read. Her fifth novel The Long Song (2010) was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. It was turned into a 3 part television adaptation, screened in Dec 2018.

 

Andrea Levy’s debut novel Every Light in the House Burnin’ reads like an intimate portrayal of family life, so much so that it felt like reading about the author’s childhood, clearly she drew from it. Capturing the essence of family life from perceived childhood injustices that many will recognise, to the humorous anecdotes a clash of cultures brings, when children are raised in a different country to their parents, she immerses into family life and reimagines those poignant moments that shaped her. From the Guardian Obituary, her family description reads like an addendum to the novel.

Her father, Winston Levy, travelled to Britain on the Empire Windrush in 1948, and was joined six months later by his wife, Amy (nee Ridguard), who had been trained as a schoolteacher in Kingston, Jamaica. Both parents were of mixed race. Her father’s Jewish father emigrated to Jamaica after the first world war and converted to Christianity, and her mother was descended from William Ridsguard, a white plantation attorney who had a child with his black housekeeper. Both parents came to England expecting greater opportunities, but found that their qualifications were rejected.

The novel is a portrait of a family in London, the children of Jamaican immigrants, narrated from the point of view of the youngest child Angela (referred to also as Anne), it brings to life moments in their family life that impacted them all, through carefully realised characters, to the beginning of the decline, just after her father’s retirement.

In one scene Anne is left with her father during their holiday at the beach, her mother and other siblings have gone out. Her father has spent most of the holiday lying on the couch, not at all tempted by the sandy beaches or the sea, but Anne is persistent. Reluctantly he agrees.

I smiled as I watched my Dad haul himself from the sofa. I waited for fifteen minutes before my Dad emerged from his bedroom. He was dressed in his grey suit. The only sign that he was about to take part in a leisure activity and not have a day at work was that he was not wearing a tie and had the top button of his shirt undone.

The challenges have only just begun. Anne wants to sit in the sun, an idea her father rejects, suggesting a secluded spot further back, where the ice cream hut has created the only shade on the beach. Initially he relents to sit in her spot, but refuses to join her in the water, too cold. After her swim, as she lies down to enjoy the warmth of the sun, a shadow looms over her.

‘You shouldn’t sit in the sun too long. You want to turn red like those English people – you shouldn’t sit in the sun’
‘Everybody else’ –
‘Cha’, my dad insisted before I had time to finish. ‘We’re not like everybody else.’

The story turns towards their encounter with the father’s decline and the navigation of the NHS health service, a lack of knowledge, the pain and difficulties encountered as a result, resolved only when the daughter pushes and insists on their behalf. Alternate moments of perseverance and giving up, driven by a need, pushed back by intimidation and shame. Here, Anne offers to visit the Doctor to ask for stronger pain medication.

‘But,’ my mum began, ‘but you can’t just go and see him. He’s a busy man. He might not see you.’ Her voice said ‘go’ and ‘don’t go’ at the same time.

Aspects of the past come to light later on, were they secrets, those things family members never talked about, which end up buried and become secret-like. When an Aunt visits telling them how things are back home in Jamaica and asks about their newfound life in England, the land of opportunity, things not said are loud in their omission. If there was regret, it’s been long-buried, replaced by silence and resignation, not to be discussed.

There are many light and humorous moments, interspersed with the reality of the struggle the family has in fitting in, within a culture where there are expectations about how to do things and underlying racism or indifference toward outsiders. They do their best to integrate, to pass on their stoic values to their children, who only realise as they become adults how difficult it had been for them.

I knew this society better than my parents. My parents’ strategy was to keep as quiet as possible in the hope that no one would know they had sneaked into this country. They wanted to be no bother at all. But I had grown up in its English ways. I could confront it, rail against it, fight it, because it was mine – a birthright.

It was a beautiful beginning to her literary career, a fictional novel that paid tribute to her parent’s and siblings lives, that demonstrates the empathy Levy had for her characters and the pure gift of storytelling that would take her on to deserved critical acclaim. Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

Click Here to Buy One of Andrea Levy’s Novels via Book Depository (free shipping)

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

If Beale Street Could Talk is the first work by James Baldwin that I have read. It was the first work he wrote after he moved to St Paul de Vence in the south of France, where he would pass the last 17 years of his life.

He also wrote his first two novels at the beginning of his literary career, Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room, along with his best-known collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son during a nine-year period he lived in Paris.

When Jordan Elgrably of The Paris Review asked why he left the United States said:

I was broke. I got to Paris with forty dollars in my pocket, but I had to get out of New York. My reflexes were tormented by the plight of other people. Reading had taken me away for long periods at a time, yet I still had to deal with the streets and the authorities and the cold. My luck was running out. I was going to go to jail, I was going to kill somebody or be killed. My best friend had committed suicide two years earlier, jumping off the George Washington Bridge.

He found it increasingly difficult to be a witness to life in America so perhaps France provided him the distance from which to write. With Beale Street he was able to immerse in a love story, bringing out the emotional bonds that keep a family together, that give them something extra, to not just survive, but overcome the harsh, unjust realities of everyday life in America for black people.

The novel revolves around childhood sweethearts, 19-year-old Tish and 22-year-old Fonny. We meet them as she visits him in prison.

I don’t know why people always look down when they talk through a telephone, but they always do. You have to remember to look up at the person you’re talking to.

I always remember now, because he’s in jail and I love his eyes and every time I see him I’m afraid I’ll never see him again. So I pick up the phone as soon as I’m there and I keep looking up at him.

Interspersed with the regular visits, are flash-backs to childhood and the moment their friendship evolved to something deeper. Fonny takes Tish to his basement pad where he has set up a woodwork studio, his deepest passion is sculpting wood and stone, he wants to show her and for her to understand its importance to him.

After asking her to marry him, they’d looked for loft space together, they were planning a future together, when suddenly robbed of it by a false accusation.  His alibi’s are discredited and he sinks into despair, but for her visits.

Though heartbroken, she is emboldened by her family, by the adamant support of her sister, who finds them a good lawyer, her mother, who travels to Porto Rico to confront the accuser, and her father, who works extra shifts to raise funds for Fonny’s bail.

It is the words, actions and support of the family that keep everyone from falling apart, they are a stalwart to Fonny especially, as his family crack under the pressure of a mother converted to a conservative faith prone to judgement and disappointment, more concerned about her own reputation than the innocence of her son.

It is interesting that Baldwin chose to narrate the novel from Tish’s perspective, and though it may have provoked criticism, it is perhaps one injustice that he sought to right – allowing the voice of a young black woman to rise and be heard.

Sharon, her mother, was a fabulous character. So in touch with her deepest roots, she is able to appease her daughter when she fearfully shares news of her pregnancy:

‘Tish’, she said, ‘when we was first brought here, the white man he didn’t give us no preachers to say words over us before we had our babies. And you and Fonny be together right now, married or not, wasn’t, wasn’t for that same damn white man. So let me tell you what you got to do. You got to think about that baby. You got to hold onto that baby, don’t care what else happens or doesn’t happen. You got to do that. Can’t nobody else do that for you. And the rest of us, well, we going to hold on to you. And we going to get Fonny out. Don’t you worry. I know it’s hard – but don’t you worry. And that baby be the best thing that ever happened to Fonny. He needs that baby. It going to give a whole lot of courage.’

Right there, the mother reinforces stability in their lives and I can’t help but be aware of the contrast, having just read the memoir An Affair With My Mother of a baby conceived within a culture that shame(s)d its daughters for pregnancy outside of wedlock, destroying lives, dividing families, creating unnecessary drama. This action and steadfast support by Sharon is a protest against the inherent culture and inherited religious beliefs, over which love and the family bond will prevail. It is a powerful matriarchal triumph, one that reaches far back in ancestral memory.

So the family encounter difficult circumstances and yet their ability to be there for each other sees them though and even Fonny is swept up in this wave of support, nourished by it, even though he has moments of sliding into darkness, as is human. By contrast, his family is fragmented, the mother and daughters reject the offer of unity offered by Joseph and Sharon, the father Frank gets it and tries to support them, to be part of this newly extended family, but without the strength of an unconditional bond within his own, he is left vulnerable.

James Baldwin in France

I think Baldwin succeeds if it was his intention to write about the powerful effect of love and family, in their ability to carry each other through difficult times, when they refuse to resort to blame (of themselves or others) or judgement, when they hold each other up and decide to be a force together and not give in to destructive tendencies.

I’ve just seen the film at our local cinema. It’s challenging to watch to a film you are still reflecting on reading.

In a recent interview, Director Barry Jenkins talked about Baldwin’s work:

I chose Beale Street because I felt the novel, more than any of his other works, represented the perfect blend of Baldwin’s dual obsessions with romance and social critique, as sensual a depiction of love as it is a biting observation of systemic injustice.

I thought the movie was a beautiful and moving depiction of the story, although my big takeaways from the book about that family bond, (especially the mother to the daughter) weren’t as strong in the film. Some of the most important lines I’d noted (and went back to check) were taken from the mother and given to the father, which surprised me, as it shifted the dynamic and removed what for me had been a significant and empowering statement coming from the mother (supported by the father). Passing those lines to the father risked putting the mother back into a supporting role, and lessened the matriarchal force Baldwin imbued her with.

The other significant moment in the book for me, which I’m not sure comes across in the film with quite the same impact, is a moment near the end where there is a change in Fonny, observed here by Tish, which you’ll have to read to find out more:

“- something quite strange, altogether wonderful, happens in him…”

All the more reason, even if you’ve seen the film, to get a copy of the book! And all that said, I’d recommend both without hesitation.

Buy a Copy of Beale Street via Book Depository

Have you read James Baldwin? Do you have a favourite?

Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L.McFadden

I’ve been aware of Bernice McFadden’s name as a writer I might enjoy, so when I saw her latest novel Praise Song for the Butterflies chosen as the monthly read by the Literary Fiction by People of Colour group on Goodreads, I decided to read along in February, to benefit from the opportunity to engage with other readers and to see their questions being answered by the author, about some of the choices she made while writing the book.

Interested in the inspiration for writing a novel, this one intrigued me; Bernice McFadden visited Ghana in 2007 and while she was there met two women who told her about a rehabilitation centre and a tradition referred to as trokosi, which they explained and suggested she write a book about, an idea she initially laughed at, but after researching the practice, a story began to emerge that she eventually pursued.

The novel is set in a fictional nation of Ukemby (avoiding comparison with the geography and customs of a specific African country), the first two pages provide a brief history of this fictional land, with its recent colonialist history, new schools, a period of outlawing African God worship or speaking local languages and their subsequent independence, freeing people to  openly practice older customs and traditions.

Shrine  slavery was one of the  traditions that ascended from the darkness back into the light.

A slim 3 page chapter entitled AFTER New York City 2009,  sets the reader on edge wondering what happened to lead to that collision of events, as the first provocative sentence opens with:

On the morning of the day she killed him, the sun sat high and white in a sky washed clean of clouds by an early-morning downpour.

From there we move into BEFORE, Port Masi, Ukemby  1978 – 1985. The novel gripped me from its opening pages and made me not want to do anything but stay with young Abeo as if to hasten her escape from the wretched situation superstition put her in.

We know from the blurb that she is going to be sacrificed by her father, under pressure from his mother, to atone for a curse believed to have been passed down from their ancestors.  Until that moment, it seems impossible, given the early success and education of her parents, I read those initial pages, wondering what it could be that changed the good fortune of this happy family.

When Aunt Serafine comes to visit from New York, the family take a trip across the border to Ghana, and visit the slave castle. After debating whether or not it is appropriate to take young Abeo, her mother relents and she joins them. A sense of foreboding lurks as they descend into the dark interior of the castle, her imagination running rife.

What struck fear into her young heart  was the history that lay beyond the wooden panels and brass hardware. Morris had revived history and little Abeo was finding it hard to distinguish between the now and what had been.  Morris reached for the door handle and Abeo’s breath caught in her throat.  She ordered her eyes to close, but they refused, and so she  braced herself for the vision of the ship bobbing on the ocean, its deck teeming with shackled cargo.

Elmina, Slave Castle, Ghana

It’s when things go wrong, when the family’s luck changes and the son comes under the undue influence of his mother (I recall this similarly in Ayobami Adebayo’s excellent Stay With Me ) that relationships get tested, families risk disintegrating and wives become disempowered.

When Abeo’s family falls on hard times, her father, in his desperation begins to doubt himself and the system that should bring justice. Instead he is lead to follow the old ways, thinking it will bring him peace of mind. In an impulsive moment, seized by and giving in to terror, he does the unthinkable, delivering his daughter to a religious shrine.

It was 1985; Abeo was nine years, seven months and three days old.

I worried the story was going to depict brutality, especially after recently reading House of Stone, where Novuyo Rosa Tshuma exposes the reader to the graphic horror of Gukurahundi, in newly independent Zimbabwe, however I was relieved to discover that McFadden spares us the terror if not the cruelty, we imagine what happened, though thankfully there’s no visceral portrayal. One reader asked why she chose to spare readers this, suggesting her method was more like leading a reader by the hand to the truth rather than holding them by the head to something too awful to take in.

In my earlier works I was much more graphic with my descriptions of horrific events. I think pulling back from that had much to do with me seeing so much violence against Black people on the news and social media platforms. Subjecting my character, myself or the reader didn’t seem to serve anyone involved.

Interested in the title, I looked up ‘Praise Song’ and learned it is one of the most widely used poetic forms in African literature; described as ‘a series of laudatory epithets applied to gods, men, animals, plants, and towns that capture the essence of the object being praised’.

It becomes a form of metaphor, the butterfly a symbol of transformation and rebirth;  in the novel Duma, the oldest of the priest’s sons rips a newspaper to shreds, intending to ignore what has been read inside it, the pieces are picked up by a gust of wind, catching the girls’ eyes, seen as butterflies. Though an illusion, it signifies a turning point, a sign of hope, of liberation, they are experiencing life in one form and soon will transform.

Duma folded the newspaper and looked directly into his father’s milky eyes. “It means the government has outlawed what we do here, . It means no more trokosi.

Abeo glanced up and for one fleeting moment her spirit soared. Indeed, at that distance, the bits of newspaper did appear to be a cluster of white butterflies. Abeo watched until the air went still and the false butterflies dropped out of sight.

It was 1998 and Abeo was twenty-two years old, eight months and seventeen days old.

The characters are well depicted, the surroundings set the reader’s imagination alight, we’re taken on a journey, introduced to a terrifying ritual that morphs into another form of traditional domination, however there are shining lights, hope has been gifted a role to play and Abeo has been permitted to interact with it.

I loved the natural, gifted storytelling of this novel, the historical exploration and psychological insight and in particular that she was able to create a scenario that showed us what a healing transformation might look like in the form of resilience.

Bernice McFadden is the author of nine critically acclaimed novels including Sugar, Loving Donovan, Nowhere is a Place, The Warmest December, Gathering of Waters and The Book of Harlan (winner of American Book Award and NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, Fiction). A four-time Hurston/Wright Legacy Award finalist, I’ll definitely be reading more of her work.

This is a story of survival and triumph.  I want people to understand that their circumstances don’t always, and shouldn’t always, define their entire lives.

Further Reading

Ancestral Roots:  Bernice L. McFadden sings an enslaved black woman’s song, Interview by Evette Dione

“The interest is not the fact of slavery, the interest is what happens internally, emotionally, psychologically, when you are in fact enslaved and what you do in order to transcend that circumstance.” Toni Morrison

Have you read any novels by Bernice McFadden? Do you have a favourite?

An Affair with My Mother by Caitriona Palmer

It seems a strange title for a book, until we understand it is a memoir of adoption, of secrecy, of a love denied, forbidden. And the woman writing it, comes to realise, how very similar the continued secrecy surrounding spending time with her birth mother is, to conducting an illicit affair. So she calls it that. It’s like an unwritten 13th commandment: Thou shalt not have any relation whatsoever with thy illegitimate child.

It’s set in Ireland, a country reluctant to let go of old ways, still in throe to a traditional family culture that shamed, blamed and punished young women for being the life-bearers they are – insisting they follow a code of moral behaviour documented by a system of domination, upheld by the church, supported by the state – a system that bore no consequence on men – young or old – who were equally responsible for the predicament of women.

“If there is anger in this book it is anger at the profound and despicable sexual double standard in Ireland. Men walked away without ever having to confront their role in these relationships.”

Eventually women in Ireland were given access to a means of preventing unwanted pregnancy, though not until Feb 20, 1985 when the Irish government defied the powerful Catholic Church, seen until this day as lacking compassion, in approving the sale of contraception, and more recently in a 2018 referendum, repealing its abortion ban (outlawed in 1861 with possible life imprisonment), acknowledged as a dramatic reversal of the Catholic church’s domination of Irish society.

For years, Ireland created and implemented what is referred to as an architecture of containment, institutions such as the Magdalen laundries (also referred to as asylums) removed morally questionable women from their homes (young women who became pregnant outside of marriage, or whose male family members complained about their behavior). They removed their children if they were pregnant then put them to work, washing ‘the nation’s dirty laundry’, thanks to lucrative state contracts provided to the institutions to fulfill. The last Magdalene laundries closed in Dublin in 1996 and the truth of what happened to those unmarried mothers continues to be investigated through the CLANN project.

Book Review

Caitriona Palmer was born in Dublin, raised in a caring family with two children of their own, the parents adopting after a miscarriage and recommendation Mary (the mother) should have a hysterectomy. If they wanted another child, adoption would be the only path.

She had a happy childhood and grew up in a very happy home, defiantly happy in fact, she would tell people early on she was adopted, almost proud of it she said, in her mind it had had no impact on her life, it didn’t change her or make her who she was, however she was constantly shadowed by a consistent ache, something she refused to confront or admit had anything to do with being separated from her biological mother at birth.

The book opens as Caitriona is about to meet her birth mother Sarah (not her real name) for the first time, a highly anticipated event, and yet as it unfolds, and she hears someone walk up the steps, about to fulfill a desire she has initiated, she becomes filled with dread and as the woman rushes towards her, repeating her name:

I said nothing. I felt nothing.

‘I’ll leave you both to it then,’ I heard Catherine say.

‘Don’t go’, I wanted to scream at her. ‘Please don’t go. Stay. Stay here with me, please. Don’t leave me alone with this woman.’

It is the beginning of the many conflicted feelings she will encounter within herself as that aspect of herself she was born into awakens as an emotional itch deep inside her she can neither locate or explain, at a time in her life when outwardly, living life as the person she was raised to be, she couldn’t have been happier. She was 26 years old, working in a dream job for Physicians for Human Rights in the US, in love and happy.  She put her anxiety down to problems with her expiring student visa, though when her employer found a solution by transferring her to Bosnia, it didn’t heal the anxiety, if anything it made it worse.

There, a small team of forensic scientists was overseeing the exhumation of hundreds of mass graves left after the war and attempting to determine the fate of over 7,500 missing men and boys from the UN safe haven of Srebrenica, which had been overrun by Serb forces four years earlier.

After a day when she and a small team broke into an abandoned hospital in search of records, the source of her own anxiety presented itself to her.

In that moment, filling our arms with the dusty paperwork, I felt a sliver of illumination. Driving back to Tuzla later that afternoon, our pilfered medical dossiers on our laps, the mood in the car jovial, I returned again to that moment, massaging the memory, trying to knead to the surface the revelation lurking beneath. What was I doing helping to search for the files of dead strangers when it was plainly obvious that I needed to search for own?

Though there could be no comparison between her loss and that of these families, it was this extreme situation that revealed her own source of anxiety and set her on a path to do something she had denied she would ever do.

She embarks on her search and despite the difficulties many encounter in Ireland, where Irish adoptees have no automatic right to access their adoption files, birth certificate, health, heritage or history information she manages to access information about her birth relatively easily. The agency traces her birth mother and facilitates that first and many subsequent meetings.

Despite the initial shock, they develop a close relationship, but with one significant and ultimately destructive condition, that she remain a secret, for her birth mother continued to harbour great shame and was terrified of the impact this knowledge might have on her current life.

By the close of that year, I had come to detest the power imbalance in our relationship, seeing myself as the cause of Sarah’s shame and paranoia, her sadness and regret. I hated being invisible to her husband, evidently a good man who adored her, and to her three children, half-siblings that I longed to meet.

Palmer digs deep into the history of adoption in Ireland, armed with journalistic skills (now a freelance journalist in Washington DC) she researches archives and interviews her parents and birth mother as if subjects of a news story, to get to the heart of this institution that wrenched families apart and caused such fear and trauma in young Irish women, leaving emotional scars many of them would have all their lives.

Feminism might have been on the march, but the women in Sarah’s world … had conspired to punish her for stepping out of line. ‘If you want to get people to behave, show what happens to those who don’t,’ an Irish historian once said to me about Ireland’s culture of female surveillance and the institutionalization of unmarried mothers. ‘Make them feel part of that punishment.’ Her Aunt’s verdict – “Nobody will ever look at you again. You’re finished.” – echoed constantly in Sarah’s mind.

One couple she researched, were married with more children, but didn’t want to know the child they had parented and given away before marriage.

“What is that? How can this legacy of shame even prevent a couple from accepting their own biological child? Why can they not open the door?

“This book was meant to answer that. But I don’t know why Ireland has let so many people down. I was meant to grow up and be grateful and never want to look at my past. Because things worked out well; I was given a wonderful family and have done well; that’s meant to be enough.”

For an adoptee or a birth mother, it’s both insightful and an extremely painful read, especially given the author’s own awakening from that happy dreamy childhood and early adult life that held no place for her unknown genetic history, or for any other familial bond or connection. She couldn’t recognise what she hadn’t known or experienced and because her adoption was something known, it seemed as if this life could be lived without consequence. In a recent interview post publication, Palmer describes this:

What I didn’t understand was that that primary loss impacted me, it did change me, I’m still grieving her. Despite my wonderful happy life, amazing husband and children… I’m internally grieving, this woman, this ghost, that’s a love that I’ll never regain in a way, memoir is an attempt to grasp at that.

I wanted people to know you can grow up happily adopted and still have this hole, I always feel like there is a hole deep down inside of me that I can’t quite fill, in spite of the abundance of love that surrounds me, this primary loss is profound.

It’s a story that doesn’t end on the last page, and will leave readers like me, curious to know what impact this book had on the relationship. The podcast below, brings us up to date with where things are at since the book was published, including mention of the hundreds of letters that Caitriona has received, the many people who have had similar experiences, heartened to learn that their experience brought solace to some, in their ability to share with her their stories.

Asked, given what has transpired, would she still do what she did, she responds:

I would have done the same, as it was approached ethically and with love – but I wouldn’t allow it to remain a secret so long, the weight of a secret… every human being wants this sense of belonging and yet we are expected to express gratitude and get along, we are a part of each of those things and that’s a beautiful thing…

The big gap in all this, and for this entire process, is the lack of facility for healing, for giving adoptive parents, birth parents and the children affected by adoption, resources to help them understand what they might go through and if they do, how to manage that, how to heal from that, live with that, recognise the characteristics that come with having lived though such trauma.

The world we live in today is a long way from being accomplished at providing that, and some countries are no doubt better than others, hopefully it is coming, it doesn’t take too much digging if one can find tools of well-being that might bring about individual change and healing.

Further Reading/Listening

Caitríona – I’m Still Grieving Her – Podcast – on building a relationship with her birth mother, the heartbreak of being kept a secret and the high cost she’s paid for sharing her story

The State has a duty to tell adoptees the truth Caitríona Palmer: Shadowy adoption system is the last obstacle to a modern Ireland – June 2018

CLANN: IRELAND’S UNMARRIED MOTHERS AND THEIR CHILDREN – establishing the truth of what happened to unmarried mothers and their children in 20th century Ireland, providing free legal assistance

Queenie Malone’s Paradise Hotel by Ruth Hogan

I was looking for a light, uplifting read after a bit of a stressful period in January; I had enjoyed The Keeper of Lost Things, and seeing Ruth Hogan had a new novel coming out, decided it would be the one.

It’s described as a novel of mothers and daughters, families, secrets and the power of friendship. It’s set in Brighton and begins as Tilda returns to clear out her mother’s flat after her death. That precipitates a number of memories of her childhood, which we learn about in the alternate narrative by Tilly, her child self, whose story is told from the moment her father has disappeared, the beginning of her obsession with matches and our realisation that some of the characters she sees and interacts with can’t be seen by others.

As an adult, Tilda is wary of people, not certain who to trust and not entirely comfortable with who she is. While clearing out her mother’s home, she comes across a box containing diaries, which may finally explain some of the mysteries surrounding her childhood, in particular her absent father and the reason her mother sent her away from the only place she ever really felt at home and loved, Queenie’s Paradise Hotel in Brighton.

It’s in Part Two that we discover who Queenie is and the role of the Paradise Hotel, it is here we are introduced to an eclectic cast of characters, almost pity we didn’t meet them earlier on, as they provide much of the entertainment, colour and humor in the novel.

It’s an entertaining read, a dual narrative of Tilly and her grown up self Tilda, where one attempts to fill in the gaps of the other, so we spend half the novel not quite knowing what happened to Tilly, her father, her mother, why they had to move, and who Queenie was.

Eventually the mysteries are resolved and there is also a love interest, though the character development of Daniel is the weakest of the cast. One of the more endearing characters is Eli, the dog. It’s not difficult to know who the inspiration for this was, as Ruth Hogan revealed in an interview:

I believe in ghosts. When my first dog died, I know that his spirit stayed with me for so long as I needed him. I also know how ridiculous that sounds, but you’ll just have to take my word for it. My family background is Irish on my dad’s side, and he says that my writing, love for tea and potatoes, and believing in ghosts is his legacy.

I found it hard to be as drawn into this novel as her previous work due to the child narrator, there was something too naive about her that made her more of a construct and less of an authentic character for this reader.

I liked the premise of the story, and the exploration of a character that was herself afraid of showing her authentic self to people because of her differences. It made me wonder how many people really do go through life like this, having experiences outside of what is perceived and accepted as being normal while they are young, whether it’s hearing voices, seeing things others don’t, or just possessing knowledgeable beyond their years, and how it stunts their growth to have that denied or suppressed, told it’s wrong, or worse medicated or locked up for it. It’s what made the Paradise Hotel so special and had the potential to have made this an even more poignant read.

Thought provoking and well intended, even if it didn’t quite reach the same level of satisfaction for me as her earlier work, her love of Brighton, the pier, which she describes as her happy place, is evocative and endearing.

I love the simple pleasures of a traditional British seaside resort, like walking on wooden piers, eating vinegar-soaked chips out of newspaper, riding on the carousel horses and paddling in chilly waves. And I particularly like to do these things in winter, when the crowds have gone home. Ruth Hogan

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

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