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?

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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House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (2018) Zimbabwe

Bukhosi, 17 years old, has gone missing. His father, Abed, and his mother, Agnes, cling to the hope that he has run away rather than been murdered by government thugs, but only the lodger seems to have any idea. Zamani has lived in the spare room for years now. Quiet, polite, well-read and well-heeled, he’s almost part of the family – but almost isn’t quite good enough for Zamani.

Cajoling, coaxing and coercing Abed and Agnes into revealing their sometimes tender, often brutal life stories, Zamani aims to steep himself in borrowed family history, so that he can fully inherit and inhabit its uncertain future.

House of Stone is a novel in three parts, Book One centres around Zamani’s determination to befriend his landlord Abed, accompanying him in his misery as he searches for his son, applying subtle, manipulative, and ultimately devastating pressure on him, prising Abed’s family history open, in order to find a way in. In Book Two his focus is on converting Mama Agnes and the final slim Book Three are a series of revelations.

We know from the opening pages that Zamani and Bukhosi were together when he disappeared, along with their friend and mentor Dumo, though nothing of what we know is ever shared with Abed and Agnes.

I’m the one who’s survived and he’s the one who’s disappeared, thanks to those mad antics of his. Poof! Like a spoko. He too was gobbled up by one of those police vans the day of the Mthwakzi rally, and has not been regurgitated since.

Like Bukhosi, I doubt I’ll ever see Dumo again. It was he who taught me that a man could remake himself by remaking his past. So when Abednego said I was like a son to him and that he would, from then on, call me his surrogate son, I felt a swell of pride and the prick of opportunity. Perhaps, as my surrogate father’s son, I can be blessed with sole familial affection and, in this way, finally powder away the horrors of my own murky hi-story bequeathed to me by parents I never knew.

As he draws the personal and family history out of Abed and Agnes, we traverse 50 tumultuous years in the region, years Abed would prefer not to remember, they contain his happiest and most traumatic memories, as the country witnesses the death of colonial Rhodesia and the bloody birth of modern Zimbabwe.

It’s a discomforting read, the author doesn’t hold back with the detail, some scenes come at you so quickly, you don’t have time to look away. In that respect I remembered the visceral detail of a novel I couldn’t finish, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Somehow, despite those scenes, I was able to continue with this book, but I was put into a state of literary vigilance for much of it, which wasn’t always comfortable. Humanity showed itself to be unpredictable and despicable in its newfound possession of unregulated power. It was a bittersweet victory that saw the introduction of a despot leader and made an entire population feel unsafe.

One of the periods we are taken back to was the Gukurahundi, (a series of massacres of Ndebele civilians carried out by the Zimbabwe National Army from early 1983 to late 1987. It derives from a Shona language term which loosely translates to “the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains”). I hadn’t heard of this term, and in the novel the younger generation hadn’t either. Zamani pressures Abed to tell him:

Isn’t this the hi-story Bukhosi always wanted to know, before he went missing? For which he got a beating whenever he asked our father ‘Baba, what happened in the ’80s, what was the Gukurahundi?

That was the Gukurahundi, Bukhosi. It was the lead rain of our new country, Zimbabwe, sent to wash away us, the chaff. It was the state-sponsored murder of twenty thousand of your kin. How was our father to tell you that? How was he to tell you that within that number were the only two people he ever really loved?

On reading this, I was compelled to look it up, it’s not a story you want to linger on, nor are they images you want to see. You don’t have to read far to learn that none of the perpetrators have been held accountable for the atrocities committed. Those implicated include many who became or are now senior political figures in the Zimbabwean government.

In an interview, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma when asked about setting her novel amidst the backdrop of this massacre, said:

“We speak about the Liberation War all the time. But when it comes to the genocide, it is always a matter of shutting it down,” she says, adding that by not addressing the psychological, social and communal issues, by not acknowledging people have died, healing cannot begin.

House of Stone “dzimba dza mabwe” or “Zimbabwe” in Shona comes from her personal quest to learn more about that dark spot in modern Zimbabwean history, the ethnic cleansing/genocide carried out against the Ndebele people in the early 1980s after the liberation struggle. The strengths of her characters come from an immersion into reading first hand personal accounts of people who survived that period, works that are not available in Zimbabwe, that she was able to access from the Iowa University library when she was studying her MFA.

Interested in the question of whether it is possible for a person, or a nation to rewrite itself, it will become the central motive of her flawed protagonist Zamani and finds that present day Zimbabwe has some parallels. Since the political coup that recently ousted Robert Mugabe, a new President has announced to the population that the past is dead.

When Tshuma began asking questions about the Gukurahundi of her immediate family, including her mother and Uncle, they were visibly upset – people continue to be haunted, they haven’t found closure for the dead, nor been able to process their experiences to heal from them.

I was reminded of the experience of reading Han Kang’s Human Acts, a powerful novel that centered around the little known Gwangju massacre in South Korea in 1980, that she discovered by accident and became haunted by. It left her with pressing questions she explored through the novel.

Despite the traumatic events that haunt or affect every character, the plot of House of Stone moves swiftly with its well fleshed out characters, sense of mystery, its rage, outrage and her own brand of wit – including the hypocritical Reverend who Zamani doesn’t trust.

Did that Reverend Nobody really think he could take me on? Did he really think he could come out as the hero in all of this, mooching off my hard work, destroying my relations with my surrogate family.

It’s an accomplished novel that confronts harsh truths and pursues questions about the reinvention of a nation and the individual. A gifted storyteller who has been able to weave the essence of those personal narratives into richly formed characters that goes some way towards acknowledging a history no-one will talk about. Bereft of redemption, a feeling that pervades the narrative and one that seems to hold many in its grip today worldwide.

The interview below provides an interesting addition to the reading experience, exploring the fictitious and the personal – in particular given that some of the perpetrators of those traumatic events still hold positions of power today.

Further Reading/Listening:

rFi The World And All Its Voices: Honoring those who lived through Zimbabwe’s Gukurahundi in Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s novel, House of Stone

Review:  Lisa Hill of ANZLitLovers

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Total Chaos (Marseilles Trilogy #1) by Jean-Claude Izzo tr. Howard Curtis

I’ve been looking forward to picking this novel up, because it’s set in and around the streets and coastal inlets of Marseilles (our local city) and even ventures into Aix-en-Provence and Vauvenargues (the scene of a murder in the novel – though known locally because Picasso lived in the château there). It was originally published in French in 1995, when Izzo was 50 years old, a mere five years before his premature passing.

Fabio Montale used to hang out with his friends Manu and Ugo, when they were growing up in the same neighbourbood of Marseilles. They were eyeing up his cousin Angèle as he escorted her home after a family visit. That first time he encountered them, they insulted him, he lashed out and got into a scuffle. He didn’t see them again until September, when they found themselves in the same class. They became firm friends.

Fast forward, they’re separated during compulsory military training, on their return they’ve become men.

Disillusioned and cynical. Slightly bitter too. We had nothing. We hadn’t even learned a trade. No future. Nothing but life. But a life without a future is better than no life at all.

Discovering that even hard work doesn’t promise fast, easy money they think about opening a bookstore, but need funding, it’s the beginning of the slippery slope into a criminal life. They soon forget about the shop, having too much fun chasing danger and celebrating its rewards. Until it gets serious and someone gets hurt.

Looking at the city from my balcony. I could hear my father snoring. He’d worked hard all his life, and suffered a lot, but I didn’t think I’d ever be as happy as he was. Lying on the bed, completely drunk, I swore on my mother, whose picture I had in front of me, that if the guy pulled through I’d become a priest, and if he didn’t pull through I’d become a cop.

They haven’t seen each other for years and now Manu has been killed. Fabio has become a cop but hasn’t been put on this case, regardless, he makes it his personal responsibility to find out what happened.

They promised to stay true to one another and swore that nothing would break their bond. But people and circumstances change. Ugo and Manu have been drawn into the criminal underworld of Europe’s toughest, most violent and vibrant city. When Manu is murdered and Ugo returns from abroad to avenge his friend’s death, only to be killed himself, it is left to the third in this trio, Detective Fabio Montale, to ensure justice is done.

Vauvenargues, scene of a murder

As the story unfolds, he identifies who is involved in local criminal factions, the mafia, and attempts to unravel how his friend had come between them.

We meet an immigrant family, a father and his three children, whose mother died giving birth to the youngest. Having encountered them over a skirmish in a shop in one of the projects, Fabio befriends them. When a member of the family disappears, the two stories begin to overlap and Fabio has another more immediate crime to solve.

Each chapter takes us to another corner of Marseilles, each car ride and return home to the fishing village of Les Goudes (my pictures below) introduces us to a segment of music and the women in his life; while there may not be a peaceful solution to the pervasive bitterness and revenge laced throughout Izzo’s fragmented world, one thing offers him temporary respite and hope is music. It represents the cultural richness and diversity of this city, populated by a mix of African, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern immigrants.

(If you’re interested in what those musical instruments are doing in Les Goudes, read my post here – Champ Harmonique MP2013)

All this creates not just the plot of a crime story, but a picture of a man immersed and entangled in his complex city, attached to his familial village, his boat, the sea his refuge and his reliable motherly neighbour Honorine, who makes up for some of the lack in his life.

Although I was a good listener, I was never any good at confiding in anyone. At the last moment, I always clammed up. I was always ready to lie, rather than talk about what was wrong. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the courage. I just didn’t trust anyone. Not enough, anyhow, to put my life and my feelings in another’s hands. And I knocked myself out trying to solve everything on my own. The vanity of a loser. I had to face it, I’d lost everything in my life.

It’s a journey through the senses, that penetrates the heart and soul of an unforgiving city whose inhabitants love it fiercely, in the pursuit of keeping a promise made in youth.

In a moving eulogy transcribed in the front of the book, Massimo Carlotto pays tribute to Izzo over his adept mastery of  Mediterranean noir, different to French noir:

His use of the noir genre is not limited simply to description but penetrates deep into the heart of the incongruities, leaving room for sociological reflection and for a return to his generation’s collective memory, and above all, gives sense to the present day.

Jean-Claude Izzo when asked about the phenomenal success of his trilogy, characteristically chose to shine the light on the city he loved:

“Essentially, I think I have been rewarded for having depicted the real beauty of Marseilles, its gusto, its passion for life, and the ability of its inhabitants to drink life down to the last drop.”

N.B. Thank you to the publisher Europa Editions for providing a review copy.

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The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi tr. Luke Leafgren

Slightly surreal, nostalgic and deeply philosophic portrayal of a neighbourhood in Baghdad, of a childhood and early youth lived under the shadow of war, shared by a girl, (our unnamed narrator) who refuses to depict her childhood through the lens of suffering and devastation.

She shares their humanity, their connections, their hopes, and when she comes close to anything that might be traumatic, lifts off into dreams and the imagination, into other realms, soothed by the souls of the departed, the wisdom of her intuition creating metaphors and fantasy in her mind, an alternative way of seeing the world.

Her resilience isn’t defiant, it’s like a hardy shrub that wants to bloom even in the harshest environment and finds refuge in the imagination. One of her recurring dreams that she enters is the idea that they are living on a ship, one evening the Captain tries to answer her many questions. The fantasy world she creates when she closes her eyes, whether she is sleeping or awake, helps her cope, keeping childhood a place of both safety and wonder.

Listen my dear. The ship is an idea in your head and I am an idea in the head of the ship. Small ideas usually have delicate wings and when they lose their value on the earth, they fly up into space. The world we live in is just an idea made by the imagination of an inventive creator, and when he found it to be complicated, he began explaining it by means of other, smaller ideas…

We are prisoners of our imaginations, and our experiences in the world of reality consist only of ideas.
And don’t tell anyone, because people only believe things that come independently to their minds. Yet they don’t know where the mind is to be found.

She doesn’t understand the captains words, but knew he was telling her the truth.

Sometimes there are things we do not understand, and we know their meaning, not through words but rather, the meaning is already inside us before others talk to us about it. Some meanings exist inside us but are sleeping. Then words that we understand come and wake us up.

Memories are narrated through her friendship with Nadia, the girl she meets and sleeps next to in the air raid shelter in 1991, they tell each other stories and comfort each other in what is the beginning of a long and deep friendship that sustains them through the things that bring discontent, the sanctions, another war, the threat of separation.

We get to know the families who live and have lived in this neighbourhood, watching them grow and evolve, sharing those moments when they grow out of girlhood and begin to blossom. We are drawn into their lives until the black Chevrolet arrives and one by one they depart for elsewhere.

News from the outside and their fates isn’t shared by the usual channels, instead it comes in the form of a stranger entering the neighbourhood, a fortune teller. He warns them:

‘None of you have a future in this place. Sooner or later this ship will sink with all of you on board.’

One of the women dismisses him as a spy, but he has sown a seed of fear in them and the slow exodus begins. Uncle Shawkat becomes protector of abandoned homes, keeping away unwanted racketeers, writing names of the departed on the doors, the dates they lived there and the words, This House is Not for Sale.

It’s an unusual novel in its determination to not resort to pessimism, despite the suffering and loss that is around them, it clings to its memories of childhood and growing up, of friendship and budding love, of mother’s sitting around listening to the stories of the soothsayer, with only rare glimpses at the politics of their discontent.

Nadia and I were born during the war with Iran. We got to know each other during Desert Storm. We grew up in the years of the sanctions and the second Gulf War. George Bush and his son George W. Bush, took turns firing missiles and illegal weapons at our childhood, while Bill Clinton and that old woman Madeleine Albright were satisfied with starving us. And when we grew up, hell sat in wait for us.

It is a lament for days gone by, remembered by the young not the old, who know their children will grow up in other lands, other cultures, with little knowledge of their forebears, of their ways, their neighbourhood, the friendships that shaped them.

We are the last teardrop aboard the ship, the last smile, the last sigh, the mast footstep on its ageing pavement. We are the last people to line their eyes with its dust. We are the ones who will tell its full story. We will tell it to neighbours’ children born in foreign countries, to their grandchildren not yet born – we, the witnesses of everything that happened.

Shahad Al Rawi
Source: Kareem El Deeb

It’s a beautifully written, poetic novel that won the hearts of readers in Edinburgh clearly, giving a unique insight into a culture, as lived by its children, its families, the lives impacted by foreign politics that no-one cares to share, the loss, not just in terms of human lives, but in an ancient, peaceful way of living that is no more.

Shahad Al Rawi was born in Baghdad and left there with her family for Syria. She now lives in Dubai and is currently pursuing a PhD in Anthropology. The Baghdad Clock is her debut novel, it won the Edinburgh First Book Award and was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

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N.B. Thank you to the publisher One World Publications for providing a copy of the book.

Teethmarks on My Tongue by Eileen Battersby

Eileen Battersby (1958-2018) was a renowned literary critic and reviewer, my favourite, probably the only one I knew by name, reputation and avidly followed. It wasn’t just for her excellent reviews, it was because she read so much further outside of the English language and culture than any other, and because she might as easily refer back to ancient myths and classics as she would to contemporary translations in her far-reaching analysis and commentary on literature.

Sadly, tragically, two days before Christmas, at the age of 60, she died following a freak road accident in Ireland, a terrible loss to her family, friends and all those who’d come to respect and enjoy her thoughts on literature. As the author John Banville wrote,

“she was a champion of the overlooked and undervalued…a shining light in the world of letters”

Her last two reviews for The Guardian linked below, a testament to that diversity, were novels by writers from elsewhere, one of them also a translation; Tommy Wieringa’s (one of the most important Dutch literary writers of the last decade) novella, The Death of Murat Idrissi (translated by Sam Garrett) and rising literary star, Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma’s latest An Orchestra of Minorities.

Having so recently separated from the Irish Times she was at the beginning of a new era, she’d begun writing reviews for the FT, one of her last the English translation of Walter Kempowski’s Homeland and the LARB (Los Angeles Review of Books), and was working on a literary Western, a genre it is said she was fascinated by.

No doubt she was wary of putting her own writing out there to be judged, just as many authors she interviewed had been wary of her unforgiving yet erudite turn of phrase. When Teethmarks on My Tongue was first launched in Ireland in 2016, Prof. Jennny Williams praised Battersby’s literary criticism, which had an international impact, acknowledging:

It was a special author who could cross the “shark-infested waters” between being a literary critic and a novelist.

Battersby was awarded honorary membership of the Irish Translators and Interpreters (ITIA) group in 2016 for her work raising awareness of translated novels and of translation in general, which plays an essential role in ensuring access to the work of novelists in other languages.

Though Californian by birth she came to Ireland with her family as a teenager and stayed, studying English literature at University College Dublin, working many years for the Irish Times, living most of her adult life in Ireland. She was known for her love of animals, especially horses and dogs, a significant feature in her novel and her long, engaging telephone conversations, always delighted to share her literary thoughts to a willing listener.

Review

Teethmarks on My Tongue is a coming-of-age story about teenage Helen, the only child of a wealthy Southern family, who in the opening pages witnesses her mother’s death broadcast on television, shot by a mentally ill lover.  Living on an esteemed property in Richmond, Virginia, she passes her free time in the company of horses or immersing herself in her intellectual passion, the science of astronomy, the solar system.

Father and daughter though shocked, are relatively unmoved by this death, their lack of empathy makes for bizarre reading, they seem somewhat removed from reality, making me wonder if is it supposed to be satire, particularly as the story around the murderer quickly becomes farcical and the media’s indifferent treatment of the family seems almost pointed, given the author’s years of proximity to that profession, I do wonder.

I imagine the reporters busy at their desks, yanking and pulling at the stuff of people’s lives. Making up stories that exaggerated the wrung-out facts and then just ruthlessly leaving the truth for dead, along with the raw and tender feelings of those who had been left behind.

In Part 2, now 18, she departs for Europe alone. Her father, a vet and breeder, sold the horse she called Galileo to a French buyer, reminding her it had never been hers. He denied she was a scientist, saying her interest was the history of science not quite the same as being a physicist. She lived among them, had access to everything, but the valuable animal was denied her and so too it seemed her association with science. Galileo was sent to France, and so she sends herself there too, depriving her father of them both.

I wanted to show Father that I was not content with simply taking whatever I wanted as it had apparently seemed to him. No, it was vital to prove, to him and to me, that I was capable of rational thought and had revised my old notion of who I was, now that Father had destroyed all of that for me.

In Paris she indulges her love of art, spending hours observing paintings, has a ghastly experience with an older man and is catapulted into the next experience by her foolish, misguided courage. Rescuing a stray dog she names Hector sets her on a mission to find a job in the countryside. Finally, an animal she can care for and own, despite the complications he brings to her uncertain future.

Mother always maintained that my “gray matter” as she called it would compensate for my physical shortcomings, my peculiar eyes … I am sure she had never meant to hurt my feelings and instead had given me a kind of confidence; no a resilience. That is what I had in abundance, resilience, very useful when balancing my standard issue face and ill-matched eyes, and, hopefully the dreams Father had belittled but which I would salvage.

In Part 3 she is working on a horse farm in the Loire valley with Hector in tow, riding horses to earn her keep, trying to figure out the characters who live there, blind to the relationships between people, somewhat aloof. We too are blind and slow to realise these connections, limited to seeing through her dual-coloured eyes that discover too late the reality.

It’s a voyage through late youth, and through the unknown countries and cultures of France and Germany (with the exception of their art, of which she has significant intellectual knowledge and insight), the novel and its main character observe well, comfortable analysing experiences yet it lacks emotional depth, things happen which surprise the reader because Helen doesn’t exhibit much emotion except in relation to Hector; human connections are stilted, surprising; she figures things out rather than feels them.

On realising she may be loved, or in love with one of the employees, Mathieu:

Delightful as it all was, a part of me still felt wary. It’s in my nature, always was; the doubts along with my stupid habit of putting everything said or done of any significance under the imaginary microscope in my mind.

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

The cryptic title finally appears near the end and I wonder if it might be a metaphor for the author writing a book, since she was more renowned for her criticism than her creativity.

In the novel it is ‘Wanderer above the sea of Fog’, a painting by Caspar David Friedrich she seeks, the German Romantic painter of loneliness; she follows a trail of his works from Paris to Hamburg to Berlin.

“Had I missed out on seeing the picture I would have sobbed, bitten down hard, teethmarks on my tongue, and then would have devised an alternative plan.”

While reminiscing on the paintings she views, we see how well informed and sensitive she is to finding solace and understanding through art, even if lacking it in life, it is here she seems able to reach inside and feel. When she finally locates the painting, she wonders:

What was going through the mind of the wanderer as he gazed out over the abyss? His life, his future … eternity, or was he just realising how far he had climbed?

A quintessential Romantic artwork, it was a reaction against pre-revolutionary European values of logic, rationality and order, as writers, artists and musicians turned towards emotion, imagination, and the sublime for inspiration. To nature. Battersby’s protagonist ponders her own life’s meaning as she hovers between those two perspectives and leads us towards the novel’s shocking denouement.

It’s a novel that makes you think because of that aspect of her character that is missing, still evolving, nowhere is that more alarming than with its surprising ending, as she reaches the end of another phase of her journey, as much in her head, if not more, than when she began.

In this respect, it’s almost the anti-thesis of the hero’s journey, an anti-myth, suggesting that sometimes humans don’t learn from their experiences, don’t evolve, they become more entrenched in their own way of being, of perceiving and then life comes along and slaps them.

Further Reading

Remembering Eileen Battersby by Neil Belton, Editor in chief, Head of Zeus

Remembering Eileen Battersby, by Susan Curtis, LARB (Los Angeles Review of Books)

The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa – review

An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma review – a stunning leap forwards

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