La Tresse (The Braid) by Laetitia Colombani (France)

This novel La Tresse by Laetitia Colombani was a birthday gift from a friend, at the time I was given it, it wasn’t available in English, however it has since been translated and published in 2019, available under the title The Braid.

It tells the stories of three women living different lives in three countries, each facing a monumental change, each determined to confront that change in their own way, once they overcome the obstacle that stands in their way, and the discrimination that exists in their society, that causes some not to support their efforts.

It’s written in simple language and has the air of a story being told, almost one I can imagine listening to, or watching on film, rather than being lived in the moment.

There is little description, little of the mundane, there is a superficiality to it – almost fable-like, they don’t seem like real lives, there’s an element of cliché in what they each represent. There is a symmetry to the stories, a correlation that creeps up on the reader as we become aware of the pattern that makes these three situations similar and the ‘tresse’ that will create a connection between them.

India – we meet Smita, a young mother from the lowest caste, who is determined that her daughter will not follow in her footsteps, in the disgusting job she and her mother before her have had to do, she has a plan to enable her daughter to obtain an education, that confronts the expectations of her caste.

Sicilie – Guilia left school at 16 to work in her father’s atelier, as he lies unconscious in hospital she discovers he was hiding something from them and it is she who must save the day – through an arranged marriage as her mother suggests – or by stepping up and being courageous, helped by an outsider the community doesn’t accept.

Canada – Sarah is an ambitious lawyer and mother, her private life exists behind a wall of her own making, one she attributes her success to, a wall that comes crumbling down when an illness breaks through it and exposes her.

All three women take on their respective challenges despite the discrimination and obstacles and each will find solace in something unexpected.

I hesitated to read this for some time, just because it was in French, but I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to read and how little I had to look up new vocabulary. I enjoyed it when I did as I discovered new words and scribbled them in pencil in the margins. And then how I come across those words in the external world, resulting in me thinking I really would enjoy to read more of these works that are available in French but not yet in English.

Despite the satisfactory linguistic journey, I’m not sure it is a book I would have picked up normally. It touches on subjects that warrant further exploration, that are a little too conveniently side-stepped or imagined to be easily resolved, which left a quiet discomfort in accepting the outcomes proposed. The author chooses not to delve into the significant issues raised and instead provides this three pronged tale that ties things up a little too neatly at the end.

Any one of these stories could have been developed, their issues explored to raise awareness and encourage discussion; ignoring them feels like a mild form of cultural appropriation. I tried to find out whether the author had a personal connection to any one of the cultures she uses in the novel, but apart from visiting the countries, there doesn’t appear to be.

Yesterday I was in Marseille and visited a number of fabulous exhibitions in the MuCem (Museum of Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean) and was inspired by what I encountered there to wish to read more French books, like Frères Migrants by Patrick Chamoiseau, La pesanteur et la grâce by Simone Weil though they may challenge my comprehension. It is a city with a rich history and a wonderful cultural offering that I shall explore more. Perhaps I may try to share some of that here.

Buy a Copy of Laetitia Colombani’s book in French or English

 

Crooked Grow the Trees by Carmel Hanes

Crooked Grow the Trees is an engaging, insightful and well-informed read that I remain in awe of since I finished reading it. I bought it not long after an online group conversation on Goodreads with Carmel Hanes about Bernice L. McFadden’s Praise Song for the Butterflies.

Since our connection is a little story in itself, I will share the comments that lead to my discovery that she had written a book and my desire to read it.

My comment on Praise Song for the Butterflies read:

Without resorting to a happy ever after cliche, I enjoyed the possibility that the experience of trauma didn’t have to equate to continual suffering, that one’s personal narrative does not have to continue to be that which happened in the past, that it is possible to change, to move on, to find community in another place, to rebuild, to have hope. Perhaps that is what happiness really is, a space where hope can grow, might exist, not necessarily the fulfillment of, but the idea, the expression.

to which Carmel replied:

What an eloquent and delightful summary of what happiness might be. “Hope” being the magnet that pulls one through life’s bitter shavings. Thanks for sharing that perspective….I love it.

What a beautiful, illustrative metaphor of hope being the magnet, pulling one through life’s shavings. I was enamoured by the ease with which her turn of phrase became a metaphor and wondered what else she had been reading, only to learn she was a published author, described as follows:

She hid among the likeable misfit toys she worked with in public schools and detention centers during a thirty year career as a school psychologist. The indelible imprint they left on her insisted on expression in this debut novel, exposing the struggles we all have to overcome early influences.

Well that combination of the spontaneous metaphor, a career of working with misfits and the promise of insights into dealing with young people who had been the victim of trauma was enough to make me curious. And what a find it was!

Review

Crooked Grow the Trees is an intriguing title, one I imagine refers to the impact traumatic events have on the growth and development of young minds, some children are unable metaphorically to grow as straight and tall as they ought to, depending on their influences and experiences during childhood.

The novel is a dual narrative between Sophia’s professional life dealing with the boys in the detention centre and her personal life, which has brought her siblings together as their father awaits death, awakening a past she has long buried.

The brilliant cover art depicts the main protagonist Sophia and her brother Marcus, whose way of being in the world has been significantly affected by memories and perspectives of childhood, in particular in relation to their father, the dark element seen in the base of the trunk. Nevertheless, they are survivors, they have used their experience to forge their way ahead (even if they face opposite directions), each attempting to consciously eradicate while subconsciously using to good effect, that which left a mark on them.

Navigating the complex relationship with her father had been like walking through an emotional minefield.  Explosion after explosion had blown so many parts off the relationship there was nothing recognizable left but a spongy mass of raw nerves and charred intentions.

Unfortunately that resulted in them having opposite views in many areas of life, a source of friction that kept them apart, rarely seeing each other, until now circumstances force them to be together again.

They had little in common other than shared ancestry. Marcus held strong opinions that bordered on bigotry, while Sophia was inclined to see people as complex and multi-dimensional, not categorizing as quickly as her brother. They were on different sides of the political divide and rarely agreed on how to solve the social and financial issues the country faced.

What seems like an irredeemable divide proves challenging when it comes to dealing with their father’s affairs, Marcus is inconsolable and Sophia wants to understand why he acted the way he did. Hanes cleverly puts the siblings in a room where unknown elements of their parents lives are revealed, they are able to talk about, clarify and recalibrate events from the past, in a way that helps them understand each other better, healing some of the latent trauma.

A foundational brick in her self-view had been flawed. Years of experience wrapped around this inner core, tendrils of assumptions and beliefs, unraveled as the core foundered. How do you reframe a lifetime of feelings? How do you rewrite decades of misunderstanding?

Similarly in the workplace, when there is disruption, she comes into conflict with the position of staff who take a more punitive approach to dealing with the young. Uninterested in investigating what happened, or any extenuating circumstances, some advocate for severe punishment.

I don’t care what the excuses might be; they simply have to follow the rules regardless of what is happening. WE are in charge not them. The more they get away with these take-it-in-my-own-hands decisions the more at risk we are, not to mention their families and the community when they finally do make it out of here.

Sophia and her colleague appeal for a different approach:

“I think it’s important to understand what led to their decisions and reactions in order to best support them and teach them,” countered Dr Blain. “One cannot separate their actions from their histories, and change only happens when we understand what drives them so we can help them understand that as well. That is our mission, not simply to punish them for wrong actions. We can only gain that understanding through investigating all angles and hear what each person has to say.”

It’s a captivating read, enriched by experience that succeeds in presenting multiple moral viewpoints, forcing the reader to indulge and reflect on all perspectives and attitudes in the various conflicts. The conversations with each of the boys and the situations they respond to are brilliantly depicted, the dilemma feels real, the reader desperately wants them to succeed in being transformed.

Crooked Grow the Trees shows relationships healing through understanding and how those with opposite views can find common ground and forgiveness when memories and events that formed them are shared and discusses. Sadly, it is often not the case that the cause is known or shared or that people have the chance to heal from those traumas that damage them.

I find myself rereading my comment above, seeing how it resonates here too.

Perhaps that is what happiness really is, a space where hope can grow, might exist, not necessarily the fulfillment of, but the idea, the expression.

Buy a Copy of Crooked Grow the Trees via BookDepository

Man Booker International Prize Winner 2019 – Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi

It’s been a couple of days since the winner was announced, view the shortlist here, so if like me you hadn’t heard, the winner of the Man Booker International Prize for 2019, an international foreign language work translated into English is:

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi translated by Marilyn Robinson

“It’s less flamboyant than some of the other books, there’s a kind of poetic cunning to it. It starts feeling like a domestic drama in a fascinating world, but with the layers of philosophy, psychology and poetry, you are drawn into the prose, through the relationship between the characters. It encouraged us to read in a slightly different way.”

The £50,000 prize celebrates the finest works of translated fiction from around the world and is divided equally between its author and translator.

This was the book I was most intrigued by from the initial list to be honest, it ticks so many boxes in my reading curiosity, it comes from a little known culture, Oman, and it’s history from the other side, focused on women and ex-slaves (slavery is still a taboo subject in Oman, outlawed there in 1970).

“It’s a sensitive subject and kind of a taboo,” Alharthi said in an onstage interview. “But I think literature is the best platform to discuss sensitive issues. And slavery is not exclusive to Oman – it’s part of human history.”

The paperback comes out in five days, I’ve pre-ordered it, so watch this space for a review soon.

Celestial Bodies tells of family connections and history in the coming-of-age account of three Omani sisters. It is set against the backdrop of an evolving Oman, which is slowly redefining itself after the colonial era, at the crossroads of its complex present.

Jokha Alharthi, the first female Omani novelist to be translated into English, is the first author from the Arabian Gulf to win the prize. A Professor with a PhD in Classical Arabic Poetry, she is author of two other novels, two collections of short fiction and a children’s book, her work has been published in English, German, Italian, Korean, and Serbian.  An award-winning author, she has been shortlisted for the Sahikh Zayed Award for Young Writers and won the 2010 Best Omani Novel Award for Celestial Bodies.

Marilyn Booth is an American academic and translator who has translated many works of fiction from Arabic. A fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford, she holds the Khalid bin Abdallah Al Saud Chair for the Study of the Contemporary Arab World at the Oriental Institute.

I love how the judges summed it up:

A reader picking up this book will be absolutely entranced by this new world of human experience that it opens up. This books tells us about the extreme complexity of the emotional relationships that we have and our engagement with history. We were very impressed by the subtlety of the style and the depth of the writing, its intellectual reach. But also its ability to flex moral muscle. It is a precise and also lyrical translation, and it brings in the music of everyday speech and the music of the poetry that it draws in. The extraordinary thing about this book is it talks of a world in transition, philosophically, politically, intellectually, socially, and that is the age that we live in now.

And what better metaphor of a world in transition, on this week that an Omani woman Jokha Alharthi wins this pretigious literature prize, that this morning on May 23, 2019 her Aunt, Nadhira Alharthy was the first Omani woman to reach the summit of Mt Everest!

The morning after the prize was announced, the Sharjah Book Authority in the United Arab Emirates announced the creation of the Turjuman* Award, valued at $350,000, which will go to publishing houses that facilitate the translation of Arabic literature.

Buy a Copy of Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi via Book Depository

*Turjuman comes from an Arabic root for interpreter or guide, a translator.

Have you read it, or any others from the shortlist?

Drawing Lessons by Patricia Sands

Seven years ago I read The Bridge Club by Patricia Sands, which I loved. Her ability to immerse the reader into the emotional lives of her characters is thoroughly engaging and insightful and the stories of those women characters and the event that brings them all together to share parts of their history together has long stayed with me.

Her latest novel, Drawing Lessons offers something a little different, in that this time the main character, 62 year old Arianna, leaves her Toronto home, family and troubles behind, somewhat reluctantly, but with the blessings and encouragement of those she’s left behind, to try and heal a little from the heartbreak of what she has left behind her.

It is an interesting an provocative premise. Her husband has been diagnosed with a debilitating form of dementia and her family have encouraged her to go on a two week artist’s retreat just outside Arles, the same countryside and landscape that inspired Van Gogh to produce over 300 works of art in the frenzied sixteen months he spent there, until driven out by the locals.

“In his letters to his brother Theo, he said drawing helped him combat his depression. He knew, as we do, that working en plein air, we are able to capture light and images more quickly and from that create our interpretation.”

Arianna hasn’t painted for a long time and is wracked by guilt at leaving. Slowly she will find her way, through the surroundings and with the eclectic band of artists that have come together to reaquaint with their inner muse. And then there is the strange allure of the man from the Carmargue.

The beautiful cover art couldn’t be more appropriate to today, it being May and everywhere you go at the moment, the poppies are in full bloom.

Living in this area and knowing how much the author loves the south of France and how much of her writing is informed by her own experiences of living a few months of every year here, I wasn’t surprised to feel how immersed in the area this book made me feel. She really does capture something of the essence of being in this region of Provence, in the landscape and the town of Arles, adding something of the fantasy of a mysterious artist, horseman, the romance element. Not to mention the markets and the collection and preparation of the food.

“Winding past olive groves, beside vineyards, and through fields dotted with poppies and other wildflowers, from time to time they’d comment on the pastoral beauty. They could imagine artists through the centuries setting up easels along the way.”

It’s a timely read if you’re interested in Van Gogh, as this year there was the film At Eternity’s Gate that came out and he is also the subject of the new show running from March 2019 – January 2020 at Carrieres de Lumières in Les Baux de Provence, a truly spectacular and original depiction of works of art, set to music, displayed on the inner walls of an old stone quarry.

If you haven’t been here and have an interest in open air painting, it’s a read that transports you to the Provençal landscape, ignites the imagination and all the senses and is likely to make you wish to indulge in a visit to the region yourself.

And although her upcoming tour is now sold out, if you want to imagine what it might be like to visit the area and visualise the area where this story takes place, check out the itinerary of The Memories Tour 2019, run by Patricia and co-host Deborah Bine, The Barefoot Blogger and visit Patricia’s blog, or sign up to her newsletter on France related writing news and tips on visiting the south of France and the culture.

Buy a Copy of Drawing Lessons via Book Depository.

The Delicacy and Strength of Lace, Letters – Leslie Marmon Silko & James Wright, Edited by Anne Wright

Exquisite, a beautiful, too brief collection of letters between two poets, written over a period of 18 months, bringing something special to each others lives at a time when they both needed it, she knowingly, he, not realising he was living his last months of life throughout this correspondence which comes to such an abrupt end.

“I am overwhelmed sometimes and feel a great deal of wonder at words, just simple words and how deeply we can touch each other with them, though I know that most of the time language is the most abused of all human abilities or traits.”

As you may know, if you follow my reviews, I recently read Leslie Marmon Silko’s The Turquoise Ledge: A Memoir which I loved, followed by her well known novel Ceremony which was exceptional and set me off looking for more of her work.

As I mentioned in my review of the memoir, my original purpose in reading Silko, was not by reputation. I had never heard of her. I was looking for a work of creative non-fiction with a nature writing slant, something that could evoke the landscape and the culture of Tuscon, Arizona. If this book I had imagined existed, it would be the ideal birthday present for a special friend. And it certainly did exist, I discovered The Turquoise Ledge; as Silko and those who understand the way of the shamans will appreciate, it was as if I dreamed it into being!

My friend is also a writer and her most prolific and preferred writing practice is the letter; yes, that disappearing art of epistolary literature arising from the hand-written form. When I saw there was a slim collection of letters between Leslie Marmon Silko and a poet named James Wright (1927 – 1980), (frequently referred to as one of America’s finest contemporary poets), I knew it must accompany the memoir.

James Wright, poet

The correspondence is written when Silko is 31 years old and Wright is around 51. They had planned to meet in the Spring of 1980, mentioned in letters of Oct/Nov of the previous year, not knowing he would be gone before then.

They discuss her novel, his poetry, language, his travels, her adventures with animals, their speaking engagements, their mutual challenges and experiences as university professors, and soon begin to share more personal feelings, as she acknowledges the tough time she is having and he shares his own experience, expressing empathy.

“I realize many wonderful things about language – “realize” in the sense of feeling or understanding intuitively: I realize such things most often when I am greatly concerned with another person’s feelings. I think such realization is one gift which human beings may give each other. I’m not much good at analysis or scholarly efforts with language, probably because I don’t value them as much as I value understanding, which is informed by that which is deeply felt before it is examined.”

Having already read about the snakes, lizards, parrots and numerous other animal life that live in close proximity to her, it was natural for me to see that in her letters, she sometimes shared an anecdote about one of these non-human characters who feature often in her memoir. In one she writes an entertaining piece about her mean rooster.

There are all kinds of other rooster stories that one is apt to hear. I am glad I have this rooster because I never quite believed roosters so consistently were as the stories tell us they are. On these hot Tucson days, he scratches a little nest in the damp dirt under the Mexican lime tree by the front door. It is imperative for him that the kittens and the black cat show him respect, even deference, by detouring or half-circling the rooster as they approach the water dish which is also under the lime tree. If they fail to do this, then he jumps up and stamps his feet, moving sideways until they cringe. This done, he goes back to his mud nest.

Silko opens up to Wright quite early on, letting him know how grateful she is to have this correspondence, a distraction from recent events that occupy her mind, he is more reserved initially, until she shares her grief openly and he responds in kind, taking their letters to another level, a kind of healing balm to the harsh reality of life.

This is one of the most moving, insightful and entertaining collections of letters I’ve ever read, born of a mutual respect & admiration, a sharing of poetry, storytelling & increasingly personal heartache, soothed by the knowledge that the other too carries their pain & grief of current situations that are outside their control.

This correspondence came at a time in Silko’s life when she couldn’t talk or share much with those closest to her, James Wright, her (senior) intellectual contemporary and brief confidant filled that void and they’ve left us this beautiful literary gift.

Leslie Marmon Silko is a poet, essaysit and novelist. James Wright won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for his “Collected Poems.”  Above the River: The Complete Poems appeared more than a decade after his death.

They met only twice. First, briefly, in 1975, at a writers conference in Michigan. Their correspondence began three years later, after Wright wrote to Silko praising her book “Ceremony.” The letters begin formally, and then each writer gradually opens to the other, venturing to share his or her life, work and struggles.

The “New York Times” wrote something of Wright that applies to both writers– of qualities that this exchange of letters makes evident.

“Our age desperately needs his vision of brotherly love, his transcendent sense of nature, the clarity of his courageous voice.”

Not having read his poetry, I read some of his works online and this one poem resonated well with their correspondence. Click on the link below to read:

A Blessing by James Wright

Buy a Copy of The Delicacy and Strength of Lace via Book Depository

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

Having recently read Leslie Marmon Silko’s memoir The Turquoise Ledge (2010), I know well how deeply connected she is to the Arizona desert, its landscape, wildlife and climate. To read in the preface to her most well-known and celebrated novel Ceremony, that in 1979 she moved with her husband and two sons to Alaska, I’m not surprised she had difficulty coping, a deeply rooted woman out of place. The lack of sunlight caused her a terrible lethargy and depression. Once she began writing this novel, the depression lifted.

The novel was my refuge, my magic vehicle back to the Southwest land of sandstone mesas, blue sky and sun. As I described the sandstone spring, the spiders, water bugs, swallows and rattlesnakes, I remade the place in words; I was no longer on a dark rainy island thousands of miles away.

She wasn’t just  homesick for the place, she missed the people and the storytelling, so she awakened them by writing them into the novel, narrating a kind of prose poem using powerful mythological women like Corn Woman, Changing Woman, Serpent Women and Thought Woman (the spider), who with her sisters created all life by thinking it into being.  It is she who is thinking this story, the author narrates it.

Ts’itstsi’nako, Thought-Woman,
is sitting in her room
and whatever she thinks about
appears.

This fable-like story frames the novel, interrupting it throughout to remind us of how things were, of the distractions, the suffering and regret, the need to make amends, the value of setting a challenge, going on a quest, the need to make sacrifices and bring back what is necessary for forgiveness and healing to occur.

And in the belly of this story
the rituals and the ceremony
are still growing.

It wasn’t until I had read the novel through that I began to understand the connection between the Pueblo myth and the story, first we encounter it, then we begin to make sense of it. At times while reading, I was on the edge of understanding, informed a little by what I I know of shamanic stories, rituals, signs and traditions, there were many  references I’d encountered from reading Alfredo Villoldo’s Wisdom, Power and Grace of the Earthkeepers.

The story focuses on the character Tayo, a young man whose very existence reminds some of his family members of things they detest. When they look at him they remember. He is always trying to make amends, to win approval, yet he seems destined to disappoint.  He is of mixed blood, stuck in a place where he seems not to be able to inhabit either culture he is connected to, and yet there are expectations of him, both imposed from outside and from within.

“They are afraid Tayo. They feel something happening, they can see something happening around them, and it scares them. Indians or Mexicans or whites – most people are afraid of change. They think that if their children have the same colour of skin, the same colour of eyes, that nothing is changing.” She laughed softly. “They are fools. They blame us, the ones who look different? That way they don’t have to think about what has happened inside themselves.”

He has recently returned from war, traumatized, he is suffering and struggling to find peace, trying to avoid the temptation of oblivion that other young veterans have fallen for. He has nightmares and hallucinates. His grandmother makes a suggestion:

“That boy needs a medicine man. Otherwise, he will have to go away. Look at him.”

The title Ceremony refers to the healing ceremonies based on the ancient stories of the Diné and Pueblo people. The ceremony that Tayo goes through reminds me of the hero’s journey, ultimately he has to leave and go on a quest, which he does, he meets someone from whom he learns things, he fulfills the challenge he set himself and then returns.

At this point the novel I wasn’t thinking in those terms and the ending is quite terrifying, until I reflect that this is indeed all part of the ceremony, and the biggest test of all comes at the end when he must embrace and use all those aspects of himself, the wisdom of all the cultures running through his veins.

He cried the relief he felt at finally seeing the pattern, the way all the stories fit together – the old stories, the war stories, their stories – to become the story that was still being told. He was not crazy; he had never been crazy. He had only seen and heard the world as it always was: no boundaries, only transitions through all distance and time.

It felt almost like an initiation to read this novel, waiting for its meaning to awaken as I read, I loved it and can’t wait to read more of her work, her ability to write the modern story that demonstrates the power of the mythological stories that get handed down through generations is brilliant. It reminds me of the retellings of the Greek myths that are currently popular, bringing the learnings of storytelling into contemporary situations, teaching us their wisdom, showing how their message never ages, the necessity for each person to live through it to understand it.

What She Said:
The only cure
I know
is a good ceremony,
that’s what she said.

A brilliant and gifted storyteller, highly recommended.

Buy a copy of Ceremony via BookDepository

Becoming by Michelle Obama

I recently was invited to join a bookclub and this was the first gathering I was able to attend. Around half the members are native French speakers and the rest of us are English speakers from various different countries of origin. The first book they read was Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Kheops (Total Chaos) in English (which I’d already read and reviewed here), it’s crime fiction set in the nearby town of Marseille. We choose books that are available in both English and French. The second read was going to be a bestseller and Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming was chosen.

A book that needs no introduction, a woman unanimously loved from where I sit and yet one who was exposed to the full spectrum of opinions about her, requiring an inordinate amount of resilience. Interestingly, there had not been universal admiration for her by some prior to reading the book, a reflection of how much influence the media has on our perceptions of people, both positive and negative.

Divided into three sections, Becoming Me, Becoming Us and Becoming More, I actually found the first two sections of the book the most engaging. Here she shares the influences of her early life and development of her character prior to meeting Barack Obama, followed by the early years of their lives together. These sections are the most insightful and endearing, probably because they are the most real.

“My parents talked to us like we were adults. They didn’t lecture, but rather indulged every question we asked, no matter how juvenile. They never hurried a discussion for the sake of convenience.”

They also corrected their speech, causing an awkward moment when a cousin asked why she talked like a white girl.

“The question was pointed, meant as an insult or at least a challenge, but it also came from an earnest place.  It held a kernel of something that was confusing for both of us. We seemed to be related but of two different worlds.”

A consequence of parents and close family being attentive to pronunciation, encouraged to enunciate correctly, having had drilled into them the importance of correct diction.

“The idea was we were to transcend, to get ourselves further. They’d planned for it.  They encouraged it. We were expected not just to be smart but to own our smartness – to inhabit it with pride – and this filtered down to how we spoke.”

She refers to her younger self as a box checker, at all times focused on the agenda, on achievement.

“My to-do list lived in my head and went with me everywhere. I assessed my goals, , analyzed my outcomes, counted my wins. If there was a challenge to vault,  I’d vault it. One proving ground only opened on to the next. Such is the life of a girl who can’t stop wondering, Am I good enough? and is still trying to show herself the answer.”

It is at this time that she observes a boyfriend who swerved. Did something unexpected, didn’t follow the straight and narrow path, something she didn’t understand at the time, being a devout follower of the established path, someone conscious of what other people think. That observation would stay with her and later she would see the merit in it, and the stiflement of the established path – and make her own swerve.

In the second section she meets Barack and the self awareness increases, life gets interesting and challenging in different ways. She observes him going to community meetings, showing up and talking to people who appeared skeptical of him. He was trying to build trust in communities where it was seriously lacking. She observed his differences, how he made them work for him. For me, this is where it becomes unputdownable.

“But skepticism didn’t bother him, the same way long odds didn’t seem to bother him. Barack was a unicorn after all –  shaped by his unusual name,  his odd heritage, his hard-to-pin-down ethnicity, his missing Dad, his unique mind. He was used to having to prove himself, pretty much anywhere he went.”

I particularly enjoyed their paths as young adults and how they were able to overcome their differences in upbringing and character, bringing tolerance first to their own lives as a couple, before going on to use it in their respective careers and ultimately as parents and as America’s role model couple in the White House.  He trusted things would work out, she worried, ‘We’ll figure it out’ he’d say. And they would.

Though the words are never mentioned in the text, in spiritual terms it’s clear they are soul mates, not so much because of a great love, but due to what they appear to have come into each others lives to learn. I loved that this comes across so clearly, that she developed the awareness to look at the expectations she had put upon herself as a result of her upbringing and her character and found another way.

But what a sacrifice really, despite the perception of it being glamorous and of course privileged. What a relief to get some semblance of a life back, I hope so anyway. Their celebrity status will likely never change, but as she shares in the opening pages, she is at least able to do some things unobserved, to open a window, listen to birdsong and dogs barking, feel more like a human being again.

She has done a wonderful job of demonstrating how she was formed by her upbringing, of how dependent she was almost without realising it initially – on being near and around her extended family, and while she grew up in a working class part of Chicago, South Side, her privilege was to have had that foundation of a strong, supportive, self-sacrificing family.

And though she attained great heights in her education and career, she too would have to draw on those self-sacrificing roots of her parents and ancestors, ironically, while slipping into the shoes of one of the most self-sacrificing unpaid jobs in America, that of the First Lady of the United States FLOTUS.