Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

Salt Creek is a powerful and riveting account of a family struggling to make a living in the harsh environment of coastal South Australia, depicting the pioneering patriarchal entrepreneur and his devoted but long-suffering wife, and the children that will grow up with both an attachment to the place and an instinct to escape it. This story gets inside you and makes you feel the struggle and the dilemma, and wish that it could have been different.

We meet Hester Finch, in Chichester, England in 1874 where she lives as a widow with her son Joss, in the house where her mother spent her childhood, remembered from the stories her mother used to tell, in a place so far from this new reality, of that life in Salt Creek, South Australia.

Hester takes us back to her childhood in the Coorong, narrating the family story throughout the period she lived with them at Salt Creek from 1855 to 1862. Her father was an entrepreneurial businessman, who could never settle to one thing, without always having his eye on the next great idea, the thing that was going to make him rich, a success. For a while the family had lived in Adelaide, while he ran a successful dairying business, but not content to stick with that he would borrow against the things that seemed solid to invest in the next thing. He’d bought land at Salt Creek, but the sheep he’d hoped to farm were lost at sea while being transported, causing the entire family to be uprooted as the family home required selling to pay the debts.

The family find themselves leaving their grandparents, friends and familiar town environment behind to live on an isolated peninsula in rural South Australia. They must rely on each for company, schooling and help their parents out to run the farm and household.

Hester’s mother becomes melancholy and withdrawn from the moment she views her future home, requiring Hester to have to step into a more encompassing role than just that of eldest daughter. To add to her woes, their mother whose youngest Mary is only three years old, discovers she is again with child, and the nearest neighbour not company she can bring herself to indulge.

Mrs Robinson was no comfort to her and never would be; she was the measure for Mama of how far she had fallen.

The family discover indigenous Ngarrindjeri people camping not far from their property, and become interested in a boy named Tully, who is able to speak a little English and seems keen to learn more. Slowly he slips into their lives, though without ever letting go of his ways, his disappearances, his unassuming manner, his sharing of old knowledge about which trees can and shouldn’t be cut, which ducks to avoid, much of it disregarded particularly by the two eldest sons and the father as superstitions to be ignored.

“Do you know what that boy told me today? That we shouldn’t have chopped that tree down and then showed me which ones we should use, can you believe it? Didn’t have all the words but did very well making his thoughts known. I told him we would use the wood that we saw fit since it was ours, not his, and did not trouble to conceal my feelings.”

Although the father believes himself to have an enlightened view, that all men are created equal and seen by the Divine as being equal, his beliefs are challenged when it comes to his own family, both in the example he sets for his son (in relation to indigenous women) and the restrictions he places on his daughters (including his desire to use matrimony as business negotiating device).

It is the younger siblings who grow into and live his more open minded view, and who will force to the surface his deep conditioning, which is unable to embrace those beliefs at all. Hester recalls the first day they set eyes on indigenous people and is filled with remorse:

When I think of what they became to us and how long I have been thinking of them I would like to return to that day and stop the dray and shout at our ghostly memories and the natives: ‘I am sorry. I am sorry for what is to come.’

While the older boys rebel by going off to try their luck in the goldfields, the younger sibling Fred stands his ground and resists his fathers efforts to use him as a form of payment, he spends a lot of time drawing plants in his notebook and is fascinated by the work of Charles Darwin.

“Watching Fred, I began to wonder if it was something other than interest and curiosity alone that drove his actions. He was so purposeful in what he did. Self doubt did not occur to him; he was able to look only at the thing, the task before him. I wished that I could do the same. My own self was mysterious t me. Oh, I knew what I did, but other than that I was invisible to myself…I did not know or see the difference that I made, the space I occupied in this world.”

Hester stays and stays, witness to all that occurs, as the challenges of Salt Creek and the rigid attitude of their father begin to wear everyone down. Hester is warned more than once, that she should not hesitate should there be an opportunity for her to escape. Mrs Robinson comments ‘Hard for girls like you’ to Hester and when questioned why, tells her:

I know, my dear, I know. It’s the expectations that hold you back. They’ll kill you in the end, if you’re not careful, suck the life right out of you. Run, I say. Run whenever you should have the chance, don’t spare a glance back or you’ll turn to salt or stone.”

The arrival of European settlers, their desire to own and restrict land, to create boundaries, while beneficial to their capitalist desires, becomes increasingly detrimental to the way of life of the indigenous people, as they pollute their fresh water access, introduce sickness and disease and contemplate removing their children.

Brilliantly conceived and heartbreaking to read, Salt Creek opens itself wide for discussion on the many issues related to the impact of colonial idealism, whether it’s how it affects women and children, how it impacts and impedes the native population, the imposition of solutions by one group on the other, the inherent disrespect and disregard for a different way of life.

I’m interested to read these accounts yet I am repelled by what transpires, knowing there is little possibility for an alternative ending, it is and always be a kind of clash of civilisations, which annihilates the ancient view, and will only accept its input when it has been turned it into a version of itself.

Lucy Treloar speaks of the considerable unease she felt and continues to feel two years on from its initial publication  in Australia, at telling the story, which was partly inspired by her ancestors attempt to set up a farm in the Coorong region. Compelled to share the experience and uncomfortable in the role they played. – Lucy Treloar on writing about indigenous Australians

The short video below gives voice to the Ngarrindjeri people and some hope that we might learn something from their more sustainable way of living in harmony with the natural elements around us.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by Aardvark Bureau, an imprint of Gallic Books. It is published in the UK in September 2017.

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Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh

1947 Migration to Pakistan, wikipedia

There are so many tragic stories surrounding the independence of India and the formation of East and West Pakistan, or the 1947 partition, as it’s often referred to, sadly thousands that will never be told because there is no one left to tell them. It was a moment in history that demonstrated what happens to humanity when fear and panic take hold in the wake of political posturing and it is devastating.

Train to Pakistan was written in 1956, a mere nine years after the British drew a controversial line through India, sending Muslims to the newly named Pakistan and banishing Hindus and Sikhs from that territory.

The author, who died in 2014 at the age of 99, belonged to a Sikh family, with roots in the area that was to become Pakistan, was an outspoken critic of the establishment, intolerant of hypocrisy, who abandoned his studies in law and diplomacy to become a writer. Witness to killings on both sides of the India-Pakistan border, his novel is his reflection of events in that period in history, his frustration with various parties and people in positions of authority and a comment on the individual living in fear.

Khushwant Singh takes the Punjabi farming village of Mano Majra, a small village on the border between India and Pakistan, one of strategic importance to the railway system, and narrates the moment when news of this change arrives and shows how it affects this community.

The trains are symbolic to the story, portenders of what is to come; in the past they have run like clockwork and though they rarely stop, the lives of the villagers is intricately linked to their passing. When the trains become delayed, the rhythm of the village gets out of sync and worse when the trains begin to stop in Mano Majra, life will never be the same.

An educated young man named Iqbal arrives from Delhi, sent by his party to observe the impact of the news.

Well, Babuji,’ began the Muslim. ‘Tell us something. What is happening in the world?
What is all this about Pakistan and Hindustan?
‘We live in this little village and know nothing,’ the lambardar put in. ‘Babuji, tell us, why did the English leave?’

The villagers aren’t convinced by Iqbal’s idealistic view that freedom will follow Independence.

‘Why, don’t you people want to be free? Do you want to remain slaves all your lives?
After a long silence the lambardar (Headman/Revenue collector) answered: ‘Freedom must be a good thing. But what will we get out of it? Educated people like you, Babu Sahib, will get the jobs the English had. Will we get more land or more buffaloes?
‘No,’ the Muslim said. ‘Freedom is for the educated people who fought for it. We were slaves of the English, now we will be slaves of the educated Indians – or the Pakistanis.’

Iqbal and a young local man are wrongly arrested for a murder just as the village arrives as a point where it can longer deny what is happening elsewhere in the country. The town’s Muslims are told to leave and eerily quiet trains begin to arrive in the village, causing consternation and fear. The fate of the two young men becomes a political consideration, justice playing no role. It builds to a terrible climax and will leave them and generations to follow scarred by the experience.

Brilliant, a compelling read, and one that was relatively respectful to all who were affected and to readers with vivid imaginations, who don’t need certain scenes described in overly graphic detail.

Buy a Copy of The Train to Pakistan via Book Depository

Further Reading:

Obituary: Khushwant Singh by Reginald Massey

Partition: 70 years On – Authors consider its legacy and the crises now facing their countries

– featuring Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid, Tahmima Anam, Fatima Bhutto, Kiran Desai, Pankaj Mishra and others

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.

 

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Tomorrow begins from another dawn,
when we will be fast asleep.
Remember what I say: not everything will pass.

I like the saying “this too shall pass”, it’s a way of being in the difficult moment, of realising that it will be replaced by something else, it represents a sliver of hope, a reminder of gratitude, that thoughts are not reality, they can be changed. So this quote that “not everything will pass” evokes a kind of heartfelt stab for me, for it pierces that hope and reminds us that some things stay, that they are not seeds of hope, they are reminders of a sadness that endures.

‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ felt to me like a novel of ancestral DNA and how living through Chairman Mao’s and the subsequent communist regime imprinted its effect onto people behaviours forcing them to change, leaving its trace in their DNA which was passed on to subsequent generations, who despite living far from where those events took place, continue to live with a feeling they can’t explain, but which affects the way they live, or half-live, as something crucial to living a fulfilled life is missing. This reminds me of what Yaa Gyasi achieves so successfully in her extraordinary novel Homegoing, spanning an even longer historical trajectory of 300 years.

The novel is presented through dual narratives, in Canada today Marie lives alone with her mother, her father Ba, died in Hong Kong far from them both in circumstances they don’t understand, a kind of double abandonment. The alternate narrative is set in her father’s time, with his extended family during the time of and following China’s Cultural Revolution.

We will come to understand that mystery as the daughter of one of her father’s friends Ai-Ming, comes to stay with them and recognises the calligraphy of her father in a box of books under the kitchen table, the first encounter we have with a manuscript called ‘The Book of Records’ a narrative by an unknown author, one that has been added to and copied and left as a message for various characters who became lost over the years.

The title of the manuscript is an allusion to China’s most celebrated work of history, Sima Qian’s Historical Records, completed in 91BCE but kept hidden for fear of the wrath of an emperor who had its author castrated. The telling of history in China was always a dangerous occupation.

We are taken back to China to the home of Ai Ming’s father who is referred to as Sparrow, a composer at the music conservatory, one of his students Kai and his young cousin Zhuli, whose parents are the first to come under the harsh judgement of Mao’s philosophy, because they were landlords, denounced, beaten, thrown from their homes, accused and sent to labour camps for unsubstantiated crimes. The young daughter is deposited with her Aunt and Uncle miles away in the city, under the protection of her Uncle who works for the regime.

He Luting, Composer (1903 – 1999) China

The story follows these three musicians who are passionate about music (which will become the wrong kind of music) and to survive they must suppress their desires, their passion and compromise, the three of them each make different choices, that will affect those around them.

The narrative around the musicians and some of the characters closely mirrors actual events that occurred in the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, the main concert hall now renamed He Luting Concert Hall, after the Director who “in 1968, after two years of violence and humiliation, was dragged before television cameras by Red Guards to be threatened and physically abused”

In the following quote, Ai-ming listens to what she learns is her father’s music for the first time, music that was destroyed before it could ever be played, recalled from the recesses of the mind of the composer, after 20 years of silence.

“Ai-ming sat on a chair in the corner as her father played the piano, she had never heard him do so before, had not quite realised he was even capable. His entire body, the way he moved, changed. Most of the pieces she recognised from the records (Bach’s Partita No. 6, Couperin, Shostakovich) but there was another piece, a complex figure that seemed to disassemble as she listened, a rope of music,  a spool of wire. It seemed to rise even as it was falling, to lift in volume even as it diminished, a polyphony so unfathomably beautiful it made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. When it stopped tears came abruptly to her eyes.”

This is a tragic novel whose characters spirits are oppressed by a philosophical regime, which mutates into something equally oppressive after the death of Chairman Mao, for a while the younger generation without the memory of the era their parents generation suffered under (and somewhat judging of their inability to challenge the circumstances forced upon them), appear to revolt against the lack of freedom to choose their paths, until they too are brutally crushed in the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989, ensuring the new generation understand the power and reach of an authoritarian regime, that no-one is immune to.

Madeleine Thien had originally intended to write a novel about the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, events she vividly remembered watching unfold on television during her teenage years, however over time she began to ask herself more about what had motivated the one million Beijing citizens to come out onto the streets, especially the older generation.

“What gave them the courage to stand up to the government? And, what made them come into the streets to want to protect, in many ways, their children, and another generation? So I think that’s why it ended up going backwards into the Cultural Revolution. I’d been writing about Cambodia before that – the Cambodian genocide – and one thing I’d been thinking a lot about were the musicians. I started thinking about what was it about music that could be so threatening. We often know about the writers who are targeted by totalitarian regimes but looking at musicians is another way in to thinking about what’s threatening to this consolidation of power.” Madeleine Thien, Granta Conversation

Madeleine Thien

This is a must read novel if you wish to reflect on how recent Chinese history affects the present generations, how regimes affect generations of their populations and how even though subsequent generations may not have experienced the past, they continue to feel its effect in their lives today.

It was short listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017.


Further Reading:

Article by Madeleine Thien: After the Cultural Revolution: what western classical music means in China, The Guardian, 8 July 2016

Madeleine Thien Interview : on a solitary childhood in Canada and daring to question the Chinese regime, ‘In China, you learn a lot from what people don’t tell you’, The Guardian, 8 Oct 2016

Conversation with Madeleine Thien: On translating the sensation of music for a reader, the importance of writing about women of colour, and the Chinese conceptual framework of time, Granta Magazine, 3 Oct 2106

Buy a copy of ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ here

 

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

homegoing-yaa-gyasiAstonishing, a work of art, an interwoven tapestry of stories that weave across the generations to create something so beautiful, so heartfelt, the thing that connects them is so strong, even when it isn’t known by its characters, somehow Yaa Gyasi conveys that to the reader, so that by the end when something quite magical happens, there is a feeling of grieving for all that has passed and of relief that something new has been found.

I love, love, loved this novel and I am in awe of its structure and storytelling, the authenticity of the stories, the three-dimensional characters, the inheritance and reinvention of trauma, and the rounding of all those stories into the healing return. I never saw that ending coming and the build up of sadness from the stories of the last few characters made the last story all the more moving, I couldn’t stop the tears rolling down my face.

How to give it justice in a review, it is so much more than story, we are so much more than our own personal experience and the place(s) we have lived.

Just as Han Kang, the South Korean author of the novel Human Acts wrote in consideration of two fundamental questions about humanity, Yaa Gyasi tells us in an article for the New York Times (referenced below) that she too began to write with a vague but important question that she put at the top of her blank screen: What does it mean to be black in America?

She further explains her inspiration in an article for the Observer (also below)

I began Homegoing in 2009 after a trip to Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle [where slaves were incarcerated]. The tour guide told us that British soldiers who lived and worked in the castle often married local women – something I didn’t know. I wanted to juxtapose two women – a soldier’s wife with a slave. I thought the novel would be traditionally structured, set in the present, with flashbacks to the 18th century. But the longer I worked, the more interested I became in being able to watch time as it moved, watch slavery and colonialism and their effects – I wanted to see the through-line.

Homegoing begins with the image of a partial family tree, with two strands and the novel will follow just one family member down each strand, the first two characters who begin these family lines are the daughters of Maame, Effia and Esi.

Effia, whom the villagers said was a baby born of the fire, believed she would marry the village chief, but would be married to a British slave trader and live upstairs in the Cape Coast Castle.

‘The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound. It moved quickly, tearing a path for days. It lived off the air; it slept in caves and hid in trees; it burned, up and through, unconcerned with what wreckage it left behind, until it reached an Asante village. There, it disappeared, becoming one with the night.’

Effia’s father, Cobbe would lose his crop of yams that night, a precious crop known to sustain families far and wide and with it, through his mind would flit a premonition that would reverberate through subsequent generations:

He knew then that the memory of the fire that burned, then fled, would haunt him, his children, and his children’s children for as long as the line continued.’

Cape Coast Castle (a slave trading castle), Ghana

Cape Coast Castle (a slave trading castle), Ghana

Esi, whose father was a Big Man, in expressing her empathy for their house girl, would precipitate events that lead her to be captured and chained in the dungeons beneath that same castle, awaiting the slave trading ships that would transport them to their slave masters in America.

‘They took them out into the light. The scent of ocean water hit her nose. The taste of salt clung to her throat. The soldiers marched them down to an open door that led to sand and water, and they all began to walk out on to it.’

In these first two chapters of Effia and Esi, the recurring twin symbols of fire and water are introduced, something that each generation subconsciously carries with them and passes on, they will reappear through fears, dreams, experiences, a kind of deep primal scar they don’t even know requires healing, its origins so far back, so removed from anything that can be easily articulated.

Fire (yang) is like the curse of the slave trade, raging through the lives of each generation, even when they appear to have escaped it, as with Kojo’s story, a baby passed to the arms of a woman who helped slaves escape, whose parents are captured, but he will live freely, only to have one member of the family cruelly snatched, perpetuating the cycle yet again, orphaning another child, who must start over and scrape together a life from nothing.

‘They didn’t now about Jo’s fear of people in uniform, didn’t know what it was like to lie silent and barely breathing under the floorboards of a Quaker house, listening to the sound of a catcher’s boot heel stomp above you. Jo had worked so hard so his children wouldn’t have to inherit his fear, but now he wished they had just the tiniest morsel of it.’

Water (yin) to me is the endless expanse, the rootlessness, floating on the surface, feet never able to get a grip, efforts floundering. This symbol is carried throughout Essi’s family line, a cast of characters whose wheels are turning, who work hard, but suffer one setback after another.

The novel is structured around one chapter for each character, alternately between the twin sides of the family, the narrative perspective changing to focus on the new generation, through whom we learn something of what happened to the character in the previous generation, who’ve we left two chapters ago. Importantly, because Yaa Gyasi decides not to write in the present with flashbacks, but writes from the perspective of each character in their present, the novel never falters, it doesn’t suffer from the idling effect of flashbacks, it keeps up the pace by putting the reader at the centre of the drama in every chapter. We must live all of it.

The irony of the structure is that we read an entire family history and see how the events of the past affect the future, how patterns repeat, how fears are carried forward, how strong feelings are connected to roots and origins, we see it, while they experience the loss, the frustration, the inability to comprehend that it is not just the actions of one life that affect that life’s outcome.

This book is like a legacy, a long legacy that revolves between the sadness of loss and the human struggle to move forward, to survive, to do better, to improve. And also a legacy of the feeling of not belonging that is carried within those who have been uprooted, who no longer belong to one place or another, who if they are lucky might find someone to whom they can ignite or perhaps even extinguish that yearning ‘to belong’.

‘We can’t go back to something we ain’t never been to in the first place. It ain’t ours anymore. This is.’ She swept her hand in front of her, as though she were trying to catch all of Harlem in it, all of New York, all of America.’

And in writing this novel, Yaa Gyasi perhaps achieves something of what her final character Marcus is unable to articulate to Marjorie as to why his research feels futile, spurning his grandmother’s suggestion that he perhaps had the gift of visions, trying to find answers in a more tangible way, through research and study.

“What is the point Marcus?”
She stopped walking. For all they knew, they were standing on top of what used to be a coal mine for all the black convicts who had been conscripted to work there. It was one thing to research something, another thing entirely to have lived it. To have felt it. How could he explain to Marjorie that what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, and he, and everyone else, existed in it – not apart from it, but inside it.

Yes, she achieves it through literature, through fiction. And this is literature at its most powerful and best.

This novel is going to win awards in 2017, undoubtedly.

*****

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana in 1989 and raised in the US, moving around in early childhood but living in Huntsville, Alabama from the age of 10. She is the daughter of a francophone African literature professor and a nurse and completed her MFA at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, University of Iowa. She wrote this, her debut novel at the age of 26.

Further Reading

New York Times, Sunday Review – Opinion, June 18, 2016 – I’m Ghanaian-American. Am I Black?

Review, The Observer, January 8, 2017 – Yaa Gyasi: ‘Slavery is on people’s minds. It affects us still’

 

Click Here to Buy A Copy of

Homegoing via BookDepository

The Good People by Hannah Kent

good-people

Some of you may know of the author Hannah Kent, whose debut novel Burial Rites, set in Iceland, became a popular bestseller. I never did get around to reading it, though I would still like to, and it was for that reason I was intrigued to pick up this, her second historical novel, set in Ireland during the early 1800’s.

The Good People centres around the lives of three Irish country women, Nora, who has recently become a widow in the same year her daughter passed away, Mary, the teenage housemaid she employs to help her take care of a 4-year-old cripple, the grandson her son-in-law left with her; and Nance, an ageing spinster who lives in a mud shack on the edge of the forest, the one with “the knowledge” whom certain members of the community go to when the remedies of the doctor and the priest yield no cure.

Nora has not consulted Nance before, though her husband Martin had. She is wary of others and their superstitions so keeps the boy hidden from their prying eyes, lest they connect his condition to the string of bad luck in the community, for there are some saying he has ‘the fairy in him’, that he was a changeling, as if possessed.

changeling-pj-lynch

‘A Changeling’ by illustrator & Ireland’s laureate for children’s literature, PJ Lynch – http://www.pjlynchgallery.com

In Irish folklore, people believed that fairies (Irish fairies appear to be a lot more sinister than the Disney kind) could entice or abduct a child away, leaving a malformed substitute (fairy) in its place, recognisable due to its ugly appearance, ill-health, bad temper and old world look of knowledge in their eyes. There were a number of ‘cures’ that might be applied to ‘sweep’ out the fairy and restore the child.

The novel follows the events that occur during the time Mary stays with Nora, as the widow increasingly begins to doubt the child is her grandson and treats “it” as if he were a changeling and Nance’s ways are denounced by the new priest.

‘I have been told you make it your trade to cry at burials.’

‘What is the harm in that?’

‘Your sorrow is artificial, Nance. Rather than comfort those who are afflicted, you live upon their dead.’

Nance shook her head. ‘I do not, Father. That’s not it at all. I feel their sorrow. I give voice to the grief of others when they have not a voice for it themselves.’

The novel immerses the reader deep into the folklore of 19th century Ireland, portraying many of its characters and the community around them as believers of those ancient ways, practitioners of protective rituals, despite the existence of more rational medicines and beliefs.

‘That’s right. Lights. Coming from here the fairies do be, down by the Piper’s Grave,’ Peter continued. Now I might not have the full of my eyes, but I swear I saw a glowing by that whitethorn. You mark my words, there’ll be another death in this family before long.’ His voice dropped to a whisper. ‘First the daughter passes, and now the husband. I tell you, death likes three in company. And if the Good People had a hand in it… well.’

The old ways brush up against the new and culminate in a challenge of one versus the other through the justice system.

Clearly, an extraordinarily well-researched novel, based on certain real events, it succeeds in creating an authentic sense of place, inside the very primitive home of Nora imbued with a strong sense of dread that this is not going to end well. We are shown how things came to be for all three characters and the reactions of the community around them, quick to fear and to judge.

Whitethorn, Faerie Tree, said to guard the entrance to the faerie realm

Whitethorn, Faerie Tree, said to guard the entrance to the faerie realm

What it really excels at, is to make the reader wonder what is real and what is not, after the rejection of the doctor and the priest, we understand how the maid and the widow want desperately to believe in the knowledge of Nance and her alternative “cure”, providing a fascinating insight into a cultural folklore that had much of its community in its grip (and some say does still).

Despite this authenticity, I found it lagged in the mid-section, as Nance’s back story was filled in, causing me to lose interest in picking the book up for a while. It picked up again as the author returned to moving the plot forward. It’s a book, that despite its flaws is likely to generate interesting discussions, of those ancient rituals and beliefs and the cases that became well-known, of cures gone wrong.

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

(Excerpt from ‘The Stolen Child’ by W.B Yeats)

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

The Ballroom by Anna Hope

ballroomThe Ballroom is Anna Hope’s second novel and one inspired in part by a family connection. I review it in full at Bookbrowse.

A woman who works in a dark, stuffy, factory, one who has been working in hard labour since she a child, is seized by a desperate need to see the sky and smashes a blackened window one day on impulse.

This is how we meet Ella Fay, just before she is committed to an asylum, a place where not only those who genuinely require care, but those who are at the mercy of the powerful (men, husbands, employers), often find themselves.

Picture: Mark Davis

It is here Ella meets John, a more fortunate patient who works outdoors, he and Ella meet briefly when she tries to escape being held and subsequently on Fridays in the ballroom, the only time selected men and women are allowed to meet.

John is being observed by Dr Charles Fuller, who desires to make a contribution to his field, he closely follows the developments of the Eugenics movement, a group who support improvement of the human race through the prevention of the feeble-minded from reproducing. Uncertain which side of the debate he is on, he tests his theories through observations of the patients, until an unfortunate incident swings his position wildly towards one extreme.

Picture: Mark Davis

Tension mounts as Ella and John begin to correspond and grow closer to each other and as Dr Fuller’s plans grow closer to fruition, endangering all that might be.

It is an interesting and gripping novel of the experience of two patients who feel more normal to the reader than the man in charge of them, creating a certain tension as we wonder what will happen to them, as they grow to need each other.

The novel is based in part or at least inspired by the authors own great-great grandfather, also an Irishman, who she discovered was committed to the West Riding Pauper Lunatic asylum in the same era on account of his melancholia, caused by the constant threat of poverty; sadly he passed away there.

It provides a disturbing highlight on the British eugenics movement, at its height at the time, supported by a number of high-profile intellectuals and politicians including Winston Churchill.

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

Click Here To Buy a copy of The Ballroom via Book Depository

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