Two Old Women by Velma Wallis

I bought a second-hand copy of Two Old Women, after it was recommended by someone whose reading I follow as one of her favourite books, I remember it being an interesting list of books that I had never heard of and this small book, an Alaskan legend of betrayal, courage and survival intrigued me enough to get it.

Velma Wallis was born in Fort Yukon, a remote village in interior Alaska and grew up in a traditional Athabaskan family. Alaskan Athabaskans are native to Alaska, the original inhabitants of the interior of Alaska, living a culture of inland creek and river fishing, fabricating what they need from the resources that surround them, living by a matrilineal system in which children belong to the mother’s clan.

They are believed to have descended from Asians who crossed from eastern Siberia into Alaska during an early Ice Age.

The People Velma Wallis writes about in this legend, roamed the land and rivers around the area she was born, following trails that ensured they had access to the necessary resources to survive the changing seasons. They depended on the annual salmon runs and large game as well as small animals, using their skins for warmth.

Growing up in a traditional way, the young Velma also lived in different summer and winter cabins and although no longer a child, she enjoyed the nightly stories her mother continue to narrate. One of those stories was about two old women and their journey through hardship and it lead to her mother reflecting on how she had been able to overcome her own obstacles of old age, despite how physically agonising it could be.

The story held such fascination to her that she wrote it down and it evolved into this little book, once a story handed down from generation to generation, now committed to print so that an ever wider audience could learn from its wisdom.

“This story told me that there is no limit to one’s ability – certainly not age – to accomplish in life what one must. Within each individual in this large and complicated world there lives an astounding potential of greatness. Yet it is rare that these hidden gifts are brought to life unless by chance of fate.” Velma Wallis

The story tells of a group of nomads, People of the arctic region of Alaska who are on the move in search of food, but this particular winter they are beset with problems, the game they usually hunt due to the excess cold have become difficult to find and the smaller animals are not enough to sustain the group. Hunters are fed first, meaning there is often not enough for the women and children.

In the group there are two old women whom the People care for, Ch’idzigyaak and Sa’, younger men set up their shelters, younger women pull their possessions, however they are both known for constantly complaining of their aches and pains. One day, the chief makes a sudden announcement, one that the group has heard of from their stories, but never witnessed within their own band.

“The council and I have arrived at a decision.” The chief paused as if to find the strength to voice his next words. “We are going to have to leave the old ones behind.”

The women are shocked, as are the People, the older woman has a daughter and grandson, however no one objects, not even the daughter, though she leaves her mother a parting gift, one that will be intrinsic to their survival.

The group moves away leaving the stunned women sitting by the remains of their temporary camp. Until they awaken to the reality of their situation and find within them the will to move.

“Yes, in their own way they have condemned us to die! They think we are too old and useless. They forget that we, too, have earned the right to love! So I say if we are going to die, my friend, let us die trying, not sitting.”

And so begins a challenging journey, a reawakening and discovery of talents that had lain dormant from lack of use, as the two women set out to prove their People wrong and more, to set an example, though no one is there to witness it.

It’s a fabulous and poignant story about the value of the accumulation of years, and a reminder for those who arrive there not to lapse into laziness and a sense of entitlement, the respect that they deserve should be earned, the wisdom they are able to impart is not just what is spoken, it can be demonstrated by their actions and attitudes. Its’ beautiful illustrations by James Grant bring the story to life and it is equally an ode to the importance of sharing experiences through friendship and community.

Highly Recommended!

Ladivine by Marie NDiaye tr. Jordan Stump

Ladivine, written by the Senegalese-French writer Marie NDiaye, known for her 2009 Prix Goncourt award-winning Trois Femmes Puissantes (Three Strong Women) came to my attention when it was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.

The blurb describes it as a novel about a women named Clarisse Rivière, who travels by train once a month to visit her mother Ladivine, a woman neither her husband, daughter or grandchildren, or anyone connected to her present life is aware of. They believe Clarisse, whose real name is Malinka, is an orphan and due to mixed parentage, a father unknown, she bears little resemblance to the mother she is ashamed to acknowledge.

The novel demonstrates this artifice of a life, where Clarisse spends every day trying to remove from her very essence who she really is, and while the result could be seen by some as perhaps attaining some kind of perfection, as a character she is hollow, superficial, not there. What makes it hard to accept or believe, is that there appears to be no reason for this decision, no apparent childhood trauma, no cruelty to have turned her into such a narcissist, except perhaps her isolation from normal family and social norms, being the daughter of a single, working mother who was obviously a foreigner, most likely from an African country.

“She kissed her mother, who was short, thin, prettily built, who like her had slender bones, narrow shoulders, long, thin arms,  and compact, unobtrusive features, perfectly attractive but discreet, almost invisible.

Where Malinka’s mother was born, a place Clarisse Rivière had never gone and would never go – though she had, furtive and uneasy, looked at pictures of it on the Internet –  everyone had those same delicate features, harmoniously placed on their faces as if with an eye for coherence, and those same long arms, nearly as slender at the shoulder, as at the wrist.

And the fact that her mother had therefore inherited those traits from a long, extensive ancestry and then passed them on to her daughter (the features, the arms, the slender frame and, thank God, nothing more) once made Clarisse Rivière dizzy with anger, because how could you escape when you were marked in this way, how could you claim not to be what you did not want to be, what you nevertheless had every right not to want to be?”

I admit, I found this novel strange, weird and inhuman. While I understand the author may have been trying to portray something about humanity, what results is the shadow of a human when an aspect of their humanity, their cultural and familial identity, is removed.

“And another realisation hit her at the same time, with the violence of a thing long known but never quite grasped, now abruptly revealed in all its simplicity: being that woman’s daughter filled her with a horrible shame and fear.”

Marie NDiaye by Nicolas Hidiroglou

As Clarisse, Malinka marries and has a child, who she names Ladivine, a daughter who drifts away from her family, when she moves to Berlin and who senses something missing in herself, but with no way to understand what it might be or how to resolve it. Clarisse’s husband Richard leaves her, for perhaps the same reason, again something he can’t quite communicate.

Slightly frustrated having finished the novel, which features a dog in various scenes, which may or may not be the incarnation of one of the characters, I decided to read a few interviews to discover what I was missing in understanding this weird novel by an award-winning and highly revered French novelist.

The details about Marie NDiaye’s life are telling, as are the common themes in her fiction to date. I’ll admit, I find I appreciate the novel more, for having been made aware of this background, to read it without this context, is to feel something this character, that something vital is missing!

Marie NDiaye is the daughter of a French mother and a Senegalese father she barely knows and is married herself to a white Frenchman. She, like the character Clarisse, was raised just south of Paris, and according to an interview in Le Monde, has spent only 3 weeks on the African continent, 2 of those weeks in Senegal, and was said to have felt “wholly foreign” to the continent. For me, this may explain why it feels as though Ladivine, the mother also has no heritage, it is clear she comes from elsewhere, but the author chooses not to provide the narrative any clue to that heritage or cultural reference and even when later in the book, it seems as though the daughter of Clarisse and her family visit that country, though it is never named, again the reader is kept from knowing the actual origins, except through the occasional physical description of the people, reminding us of those opening clues to her mother’s physique.

“NDiaye’s novels frequently feature biracial couples, absent or distant fathers, and strained filial relationships. Her characters often feel ill at ease within their communities, and struggle with doubts that they are not who they believe or wish themselves to be.” New Republic, The Metamorphoses of Marie NDiaye by Jeffrey Zuckerman

There is an emptiness at the core of the novel, a sad indictment of the policies of some countries in their attempt to assimilate the many cultures into one, a loss of a richness that even when unknown can be exhilarating to explore, which is why I have enjoyed so much the work of writer’s like Maryse Condé’s Victoire: My Mother’s Motherand Yaa Gyasi ‘s Homegoing who through their stories seek to explore that which they were not exposed to during their childhoods, but which they come to understand more by visiting the places or exploring through storytelling.

The article in the New Republic (linked below) is worth a read for its discussion of comparisons with Gustave Flaubert’s ‘free indirect discourse’ and how NDiaye submerges the reader into the speaker’s mind and the role of the element of fantasy, or those aspects that cause the reader to wonder whether what they just read was real or a hallucination or the product of an unreliable narrator.

Overall, an interesting read and an interesting writer and novel to read about, but that lack of a cultural heritage or interest in going there to seek it out and confront it, make me less inclined to want to read more of her work. I would however be interested in what she might come up with, should she decide to research her African roots and risk taking that inner journey that would no doubt enrich her fiction and interest this reader.

Further Reading

The Metamorphoses of Marie NDiaye, New Republic by Jeffrey Zuckerman

3 Generations Of Trauma Haunt ‘Ladivine’, NPR review by Jean Zimmerman

Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

Salt Houses is a novel that eventually comes full circle, as it follows the female members of a Palestinian family as they flee, move, marry and cope with constantly being and feeling outside where they belong, including between generations and even between siblings.

Each chapter is titled with the name of one of the family, beginning with Salma, the mother of Alia, in Nablus, Palestine, the town she and her husband Hussam and their children fled to in 1948, following the Nakba (catastrophe). Alia is a child of war, barely three years old when they had to flee.

The opening lines are an indication of what is to come and intrigue us to want to know more, they remind me of a visit to Palestine where I first heard about this cultural divination practice, Tasseography, the art of reading coffee grinds, a ritual that dates back thousands of years.

“When Salma peers into her daughter’s coffee cup, she knows instantly she must lie.”

Alia’s older sister is married and lives in Kuwait, a land Alia is reluctant to visit, but when she does in 1967, finds she is unable to return to Palestine due to “the Setback” (the Six-Day-War), thus her children will know a home and culture, even though connected to her heritage, very different from her own.

As each generation makes a move, Hala Alyan takes the reader on an emotional journey of perseverance and loss, against a background of political manoeuvring. While the narrative avoids the conflict and brutality of war and deplacement, we become witness to the separation of a family from its roots, its culture, its land, and in particular the effect on a Palestinian family of the founding of Israel and the conflicts that followed that caused them to become refugees, firstly in their own country and latterly in neighbouring countries.

The separation is not just from their land and traditions, but between perceptions, as family members find it difficult to understand the yearnings of their elders and parents find it difficult to understand the foreigners their have become to them. Fortunately, like with many families, solace can sometimes be found for a child with their grandparent, those who have seen too much to be surprised by anything anymore, who have arrived at acceptance without judgement.

Salt is referred to throughout, invoking memories of family living near the sea displaced inland; fathers who “salted everything after that, even his water,” houses lost, eroded like salt; lives soothed by and almost taken by immersion in salt water. It is everpresent.

“The porcelain surface of the teacup is white as salt; the landscape of dregs, violent.”

Through it all Alia’s husband harbours a secret that torments him, one that he lives with by regularly writing letters that are never sent, seeking atonement.

The novel traverses with diligence a difficult period in the history of Palestine and the Middle East, demonstrating the resilience of humanity to survive, the sacrifices that are made and the cultural poverty that is experienced giving rise to the insatiable desire for families to remain connected, not just to each other but to the small yet important things, the traditional rice dishes, the olive, the orange tree, the desire to keep flowers blooming, no matter where they find themselves.

Their homes may crumble, but their spirits continue to reignite and flourish, wherever their heads may lie.

Hala Alyan is a Palestinian-American author, poet and practicing clinical psychologist living in Brooklyn, who spent her childhood moving between the Middle East and the US.  Salt Houses is her debut novel and is inspired by some of her own extended family experiences.

“I definitely think there was an intergenerational trauma that went along with losing a homeland that you see trickle down through the different generations”  Hala Alyan, NPR interview.

Further Reading:

Dreams, Displacement & DNA: Talking With Hala Alyan About ‘Salt Houses’ What happens when displacement enters your DNA? by Kristin Iversen · May 9, 2017

Note: This book was an ARC (advance reader copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley. I originally reviewed this book for Bookbrowse.

 

 

Sealskin by Su Bristow

A ‘selkie‘ is a mythological creature found in Scottish, Irish, Faroese and Icelandic folklore. They are creatures that live in the sea as seals and can shed their skin on land to temporarily obtain the human form.

Su Bristow has taken one of the legends, which is better to discover after you’ve read the story, and woven a coming of age story around it, about a young man unsure of himself, who, through his encounter with a selkie, transforms into a more confident and emotionally intelligent version of himself.

Living on the Scottish coast, Donald is uncomfortable in his own skin and resistant to his mother’s suggestion, that he join his Uncle and the lads who’ve mocked him in the past on the fishing boat, the work his father had done before the sea claimed him. He prefers the solitary task of checking his crab pots, staying close to the shore, his brooding thoughts uninterrupted.

“Picking his way down the path to the shore, on his own at last, he began to feel easier. A night like this! Where else would he be but alone? Cooped up on the boat with the others, there’d have been no time to look, to listen,  to breathe it all in; but out here, with the vastness of sky and sea all to himself, a man might witness marvels.”

Donald and his mother’s live will change course quickly after that night, after he observes something mystical and makes a terrible error of judgement. He in turn, ignores, accepts and tries to atone for his mistake, his life becoming evermore entwined with the fates of his extended family and the people of his village, in doing so.

He becomes more observant and aware of human frailty and how his contribution might ease the path of difficulty and pleasure for those around him.

“It came to him that the way she watched was different from his own. He dealt with people warily, looking out for blows or pitfalls, always glad when the ordeal was over. Nor was she like the priest, watching in order to manage his flock rather than to be like them. She seemed to have no sense of separation, no self-consciousness, and yet she was set further apart then all of them.”

As soon as I heard about this book and its premise, I knew I wanted to read it, it has a little of the magic that made Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child such an enigmatic and yet compelling novel to read. It also reminded me of the equally wonderful novel The Italian Chapel by Philip Paris, based on the true story of Italian prisoner of war soldiers held on the Scottish island of Orkney.

It’s a beautifully written, thought-provoking narrative that combines the harshness and wonder of a coastal landscape and lifestyle, with its moments of beauty and hardship, and how it is be different within a community of relatively like-minded souls, how to celebrate that difference and learn to accept it within ourselves. Perfect summer reading!

 

Eva Sleeps by Francesca Melandri tr. Katherine Gregor

Eva Sleeps is a thought-provoking novel that takes the reader on multiple journeys, as the narrative slowly unravels the mystery that connects Eva, her mother Gerda and Vito.

“Where’s Eva anyway?”

“Eva is sleeping.”

The brown parcel travelled backward along the road it had taken to arrive at that spot: two thousand, seven hundred and ninety-four kilometres in total,there and back.

Eva Sleeps is a reference from Paradise Lost and a quote in the book that is repeated both in the prologue (above) and at the end of the novel, referring to the delivery of a package that arrives from the postal worker for Eva, one that her mother rejects, saying it is unwanted. It is an indirect introduction to the three main characters, introducing a connection that will be alluded through throughout and revealed  by the end after we too have travelled that same journey the package takes.

“Let Eve (for I have drench’d her eyes, Here sleep below, while thou to foresight wak’st.”

John Milton, Paradise Lost, book XI

We meet Eva as she is met at Munich airport by Carlo, he will drive her the three-hour journey across two borders to her home in Sudtirol/Alto Adige in a German-speaking part of northern Italy. It is the beginning of the Easter holiday and the beginning of a longer journey she will make when she receives the call from Vito telling her he doesn’t have long to live and that he’d like to see her again.

Eva’s chapters are titled Kilometre 0, Kilometres 0-35, up to Kilometre 1397 ending with Kilometre 0, Today. These chapters contain her thoughts and observations as she makes the 1400km journey towards the dying Vito in Sicily.

The interposing chapters are Gerda’s story and they are labelled by the years within which her story is narrated, beginning in 1919, a year in which:

“…the peace treaty was being signed in Saint-Germain, with which the victorious powers of the Great War – France, especially – wishing to punish the dying Austrian Empire, assigned South Tyrol to Italy. Italy was very surprised. There had always been talk of liberating Trento and Trieste, but never Bolzano – let alone Bozen. It was perfectly logical. South Tyrolean’s were German people, perfectly at ease in the Austro-Hungarian empire, and didn’t need anyone to liberate them. Even so, after a war that had certainly not been won on the battlefield, Italy ended up with that stretch of the Alps as their unexpected booty.”

It was also the year her father inherited the family home after the death of his parents. The fate of the family would forever be affected by that political decision, for all those native to the area, who overnight were ruled in a language and culture foreign to their ways, making them like strangers in their own country, as people from the poorer southern parts of Italy were sent to live among them, in an effort to try to make these tall, blond people more Italian.

Gerda’s family is poor and as soon as she is old enough she is sent out to work, she works in the kitchen of a large hotel and alongside her striking beauty, develops a talent for creating delectable local dishes, twin characteristics that will lift her out of poverty and give her a measure of independence, much required after her father disowned her upon the arrival of Eva. She finds a way to continue working without losing her daughter.

Alongside the enthralling life of Gerda, who is the most well-rounded and well-known of the characters we follow, we are exposed to the context of the freedom fights of Alto Adige, those who protested against the cultural white-washing, labelled terrorists for their protests when they turn violent.

“Until a few years ago, when you said you were a German speaker from Alto Adige, they thought you were a terrorist. At the very least they’d ask: but why do you people hate Italians so much?

Then things changed. In the weekly supplement of the newspaper, a few months ago, the front cover was devoted to separatist ethnic movements in Europe. It mentioned:

Corsica, Slovakia, Scotland, Catalonia, the Basque country, Kosovo, Montenegro, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and the Po Valley.

The Po Valley!

No sign of Alto Adige.

Eva Sleeps is a provocative novel of journeys, of connections and contradictions across cultures, of love in its many forms, of struggles and conflicts, identity and how we are connected to place.

Told in a compelling narrative while backgrounding the fascinating and little known history of this part of northern Italy, it does what the historical novels often do best, increase our historical knowledge, while highlighting the ricochet effects political decisions can have on humanity, on innocent civilians, making us understand why the oppression that results turn some towards violence and others to seek love, as ways to dull the pain.

The novel is being made into a film.

Note: This book was kindly provided to me by the publisher, Europa Editions.

 

The Last Gods of Indochine by Samuel Ferrer

The Last Gods of Indochine is a fascinating work of historical fiction, covering two periods of history in a dual narrative, whose links eventually become clear in a surprising and unsuspecting conclusion.

The dual narrative follows firstly the journey of a young woman recovering from her role as a volunteer in World War I, who decides in 1921 to leave England and follow in her French grandfather’s footsteps to Cambodia. Afflicted by strange dreams that seem to relate to the area she is visiting, she tries to unravel their mystery and some of the things written in her grandfather’s journals that don’t initially appear to make sense.

While Jacquie Mouhot is a fictional character, her inspiration Henri Mouhot is a real historical figure, the first French explorer to rediscover the lost city of Angkor (though it hadn’t been forgotten in the region) and the grand monuments, whose temples, carvings and structure would reveal much about life during the 800 years (802-1431 AD) that the Khmer Empire was at its heights.

In the second narrative we meet Paaku and his teenage friend in 1294 Angkor, just before the beginning of the decline of the vast Khmer Empire and civilisation, a disappearance that mystified historians for many years, how a city of over 1 million inhabitants could disappear, its monuments and infrastructure reclaimed by the jungle, covered over as if it was never there.

Henri Mouhot’s tomb – Photo from 1989 by J.M. Strobino

Even the gravestone memorial to the explorer Henri Mouhot was reclaimed by the jungle, pierced by the insistent roots of a tree, and forgotten for many years; in recent years a new path has been created to try to resurrect it as a visiting place for travellers.

Events change the destiny of these two young men, highlighting the beliefs and vulnerabilities inherent within the culture at the time, that may have contributed to its demise.

For more about my thoughts on the novel and to read the article I wrote on the Rise and Fall of the Khmer Empire, you can visit The Bookbrowse Review.

The Last Gods of Indochine was nominated for the The Man Booker Asian Literary Prize, an award that sadly, has also disappeared.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher for review at Bookbrowse.com

The Bastards of Pizzofalcone by Maurizio De Giovanni tr. Andrew Shegaar #WorldNoir

Crime fiction isn’t my usual choice, but I’ve been reading Italian literature in the past week, and since this is also set in Naples and came from Europa Editions, I decided to take a break from the more literary style and read this novel classified as ‘world noir‘ (a tribute and new imprint dedicated to the best in international crime fiction).

A quick look up tells me that noir fiction has its roots in hard-boiled fiction ( a tough, unsentimental style American of crime writing) where the protagonist is often an outcast, alienated. However, Kim Fay from LA Review of Books, when reading noir, used to preparing herself for ‘bleak cynicism and uncomfortable moral ambiguity’ is pleasantly surprised, referring to De Giovanni’s Pizzofalcone precinct series and empathetic characters as ‘tender noir’:

“Reading the Pizzofalcone Precinct series, by Maurizio de Giovanni, I quickly discovered that I can still be surprised. These books didn’t get to me with an extra dose of soul-sucking fatalism or some harrowing new breed of self-destructive protagonist. Instead, their emotional “gotcha!” came in the unexpected form of tenderness.

Tender noir? Is such a thing possible? Yes — and it adds a richness that many noir novels lack.” Kim Fay, LARB

As for alienated, the entire team at the Pizzofalcone precinct in Naples fit that mould, the place was about to be closed down, due to the previous investigative branch have been suspended for being implicated in a crime, the precinct may still be shut down, depending on how this new team of misfits work together and whether they succeed.
The Pizzofalcone precinct covers four distinct neighbourhoods: upmarket, poor, business and historic, it is like a microcosm of the city of Naples, an area where each of it many elements are likely to sidle up against one another.

“The precinct isn’t big, but its crowded; it encompasses a part of the Spanish Quarter and stretches on down to the waterfront. Four different worlds, in other words: the lumpenproletariat, as we used to say in the old days; the white-collar middle class; the businessmen of the upper middle-class; and the aristocracy. Everything except manufacturing, in an area barely three kilometres on a side. One of the oldest police districts in the city, small but strategic.”

All of them have been transferred from their previous workplaces, renegades who are unwelcome where they currently are, involved in some kind of misdemeanour – although in the case of the Sicilican Inspector Lojacono, who becomes the lead investigator of the new murder case, he was both specially requested due to his reputation and passed on without regret, due to allegations of corruption that have tainted and alienated him, since he showed everyone up in his last case by solving it while everyone else was looking in a different direction.

He is new to Naples, he has a teenage daughter he is worried about, a pizza waitress who is eyeing him up and a high-ranking magistrate whom he daydreams inappropriately of.

The wife of a notary is found dead in their apartment with no forced entry and so they set to and investigate, introducing us to various elements of working and non-working Neapolitan life, including an elderly woman who sits at her window all day, every day and is suspicious about the new occupant of an apartment opposite her, a beautiful young woman also never leaves her apartment.

We are also introduced to the obsession of the policemen Giorgio Pisanelli, who collects information about all the recent suicides in the precinct, convinced there is a connection between them and that they are not suicides.

It’s a well-paced, intriguing read, a few short chapters in italics, portraying characters who may be suspects, characters who are trying to hide something, this narrative adding to the mystery and has the reader trying to guess who it might be.  I really enjoyed it and even though I didn’t guess the revelation at the end, I appreciated that it wasn’t overly full of twists, neither was it completely obvious.

The author succeeds in portraying Naples both through the eyes of the newcomer and with the familiarity of a local, adding a compelling element of discovery and opening the way for future instalments. The team was well portrayed, interesting but quirky characters, that clearly will continue, since the resolution of this crime should serve to keep the precinct open, these renegades forming into a solid team while navigating the fine edge between the ongoing surety of their positions and a volatile potential to destroy it with one reckless mistake.

Maurizio de Giovanni was born in Naples in 1958 and for many years worked in a bank, though not a natural vocation, his colleagues attest he always had his nose in a book and it was in fact they who entered him in a short story competition in 2005 for ‘giallo novelists’ (a 20th-century Italian mystery, thriller or horror genre of literature and film) that was the catalyst to his becoming a successful crime writer.

That story introduced detective Commissario Ricciardi and spawned a series of books set in 1930 Naples, fascist Italy. His parents were born in 1930’s Naples, their lives and experiences clearly an influence contributing to his passionate for pre-war Naples of the 1930’s and the city today.

The Bastards of Pizzofalcone, originally published in 2013, marked his transition from the noir genre to the police procedural and a move from the 1930’s to contemporary life in Naples. The series featuring Inspector Lojacono continues (there are six books in Italian) and is being made into a television series in 2017.

Note: Thank you to the publisher Europa Edition, for providing a copy of this book.